We Could Live in Hope: A Tribute to Low by Various Artists (Review)

When taken on its own merits, the compilation has plenty of high points.
We Could Live in Hope - Various Artists

No offense to the fine folks at Fractured Discs, but Low seems like an odd choice for a tribute album. It’s not that the Minnesota trio haven’t been prolific (they’ve released 6 albums in the past 10 years, along with numerous singles, EPs, live albums, and retrospectives) or influential (although Low didn’t create “slowcore,” it’s a safe bet that they’re the ones who immediately leap to mind 99% of the time whenever the genre is mentioned). By all accounts, Low certainly deserves to be paid some sort of tribute for the way in which they’ve shaped indie music’s slower forms over the past decade.

However, the very nature of their music, with its subtlety and restraint even at its most rawk (i.e. Trust’s “Canada”), seems to resist any sort of hallowed celebrity treatment — such as a tribute album. Furthermore, what more can be said about Low’s music? Rarely has a band made music so definitive, so able to completely stand on its own, with little need of reinterpretation. How do you cast Low in a new light without destroying the very thing about their music that makes it distinctively Low-esque, or rehashing what the band has already stated countless times?

Besides, Low has done plenty of reinterpretation of their own, whether it’s partnerships with Spring Heel Jack and The Dirty Three, their unlikely covers, side projects (such as Alan Sparhawk and Zak Sally’s Hospital People), or even performing some of their definitive songs (“Words,” “Over The Ocean”) in a Misfits style.

With these thoughts in mind, I approached We Could Live in Hope with a wee bit of trepidation. And I’m still of mixed opinion. When taken on its own merits, the compilation has plenty of high points. However, in the grander scheme of things, it just serves as a reminder that nobody, but nodody, does it as anywhere near as well as Low.

I’ve made no secret of my lacklustre impressions of Pale Horse And Rider, Jon De Rosa’s (Aarktica) tongue-in-cheek acoustic/country-western side project. However, his lap steel-drenched version of “Fear” is quite a lovely track, burnishing De Rosa’s drawl with plenty of lovely tones. Meanwhile, A Northern Chorus delivers what might be the album’s most gorgeous moment. Their drifting version of “Slide” (as you might’ve gathered by the tribute’s title, all of the covers come from Low’s first album) has meandering violins and cloud-like guitars slowly combining with sparse percussion and weary male/female harmonies, with lovely results.

Kid Dakota’s “Lullaby” is one of the album’s more original covers, even going so far as to drop new lyrics over sputtering rhythms, dusty guitars (acoustic and steel), and background atmospherics. In its more stripped down moments, it comes quite close to capturing the tension that made Low’s debut such a revealing listen in the first place. The same could be said of Migala’s brooding take on “Words,” which places thick, Nick Cave-esque vocals over eerie, atmospheric chanting and sparse arrangements.

Of all the covers, however, those by Jessica Bailiff and Idaho probably intrigued me the most. Both are artists of whom I’ve heard a great deal, and yet I’m not at all familiar with their music. Bailiff’s cover of “Down” is worlds removed from her drone-oriented work in Clear Horizon, with twilight sounds serving as the backdrop of layers of Bailiff’s guitar and dreamy vocals. If her solo work is at all like that, I’ve got some catching up to do. And despite owning an Idaho album, I’ve never really listened to any of Jeff Martin’s work. Therefore, his cover of “Rope” is something of a revelation to me. Rolling pianos, static-y programming, violins, and Supersilent-esque textures merge with Martin’s yawning vocals in a manner that is quite evocative.

But even with such solid songs, the question still niggling at the back of my mind is whether or not the compilation furthers my appreciation for Low. And to that, I still don’t quite have an answer. However, I will say that, as great as some of these covers are, they still don’t measure up at all to the originals. Which is to reaffirm just how great Low’s music has often been in the past. If nothing else, I can say that We Could Live in Hope has caused me to want to go back and revisit one of my favorite bands, if only to see how it’s really done. And I suppose that might be all that one can really ask of a tribute album.

Now, bring on A Lifetime of Temporary Relief.

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