Pitchfork and other media sites have reported the death of Mimi Parker. Parker was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late 2020, and I’d hoped that she would recover. She was 55.
Along with her husband Alan Sparhawk, Parker was the core at the heart of the long-running band Low. She was the primary percussionist for the band, and traded vocals with Sparhawk to create slow, haunting, and deceptively simple songs.
I have intense memories of listening to Low’s 1994 debut I Could Live in Hope on repeat on my Walkman (but only in the winter). I loved their 1995 follow up, Long Division (somehow darker and crueler than the first record), but it’s 1996’s The Curtain Hits the Cast that will probably always be the definitive Low album for me. The dark opener “Anon” slides into two perfect, restrained pop songs — “The Plan” and “Over the Ocean,” a track carried by Parker’s perfect harmonies and spare percussion. The album’s penultimate track, “Do You Know How to Waltz?” is definitive slowcore noise, ambient and menacing and thrilling and hypnotic. (It was probably around this time that I made the Low t-shirt my wife later adopted, and then my daughter took up.)
I got to see Low play on the tour for their next album, Songs for a Dead Pilot. It was at a goth club in Orlando, on a small stage. I recall their being kids dancing to stuff like KMFDM in the main part of the club, and the sound drifted over. Everyone sat down. My friend Scott laid down and slept. It was wonderful. I got lost driving home to Gainseville and got home when the sun was coming up.
In 1999, Low released the perfect Christmas EP. Their original track “Just Like Christmas” is our favorite Christmas song in my household, and I know when we break it out in a few weeks I’ll feel like crying. There’s something perfect about how Parker characterizes a Scandinavian tour: “By the time we got to Oslo / The snow was gone / And we got lost / The beds were small / But we felt so young / It was just like Christmas.”
I got to see Low again, sometime around the summer of 2000. They played a small record store that I had ostensibly been working at (really, we used the space upstairs to rehearse our own band), and the owner offered a chance to meet them. I declined. The Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor opened for them. There seemed to be no room for their ensemble and the audience to watch. The Low trio sat in the audience with us. Their set was like comedown music. Ethereal.
Things We Lost in the Fire came out in the spring of 2001. It was recorded by Steve Albini and it soundtracked a lot of my last year in college, which was often confusing and depressing and scary. Parker’s vocal on “In Metal” still destroys me.
In 2000s, I stopped keeping up with many of the nineties acts that I’d loved. With a handful of exceptions (the most notable being Lambchop), most indie acts were doing the same thing again and again, just not as well as they had once done. Low were different though. 2005’s The Great Destroyer, while not perfect, featured faster, poppier songs like “California.” The 2007 follow up, Drums and Guns is one of Low’s harshest, meanest, and best albums—a perfect response to the venomous Bush years. 2011’s C’Mon pushed their sound even further, while still holding on to their melodic core, as we can hear in a song like “Especially Me.”
Low’s 2015 record Ones and Sixes pointed to yet another direction—noisy, angular, chromatic. Low used the studio and self-sampling to create strange beauty. The trend continued on 2018’s Double Negative, where the band took the production techniques even farther, but it was last year’s 2021 that really saw the fruition of those experiments on HEY WHAT, an album that captures the weirdness and beauty of isolation, of unrelieved tension that folds into itself. Parker’s voice gliding through the digital noise and haze at the end of “Hey” is as wonderful as ever. Thank you so much for the gift of your music, Mimi.
I saw the film this weekend and it’s one of the best musical documentaries I’ve seen in ages. The film is really about the art scene in New York City in the 1960s, and as such, Haynes employs a number of aesthetic conceits, all of which vibrate on just the right side of pretentiousness. There are lots and lots of clips from Warhol’s films and screen tests combined with archival footage (John Cage on teevee, for example), and old interviews interspersed with new interviews with John Cale, Moe Tucker, and a host of other musicians, artists, actors, and folks who bore witness to that whole scene. The film is its own thing—it transcends being “about” the band—indeed, that’s the best thing about The Velvet Underground: it lets you see and hear the band you discovered when you were thirteen or fifteen or thirty with fresh ears and fresh eyes. To this end, it’s possible that the film might turn off folks completely unfamiliar with the band and its influence. Haynes addresses this in his interview with Adams:
I mean, there are some people for whom this will be frustrating and not what they expect from a documentary. They kind of want that tidier oral history. If you’re interested, there’s all kinds of more stuff to find and discover for yourself. But I wanted it to be mostly that experience where the image and the music were leading you, and then it was a visceral journey through the film.
A visceral journey it is.
A highlight for me in the film is a series of late appearances by Jonathan Richman. Adams enjoyed that too:
[Adams]: As someone who’s been listening to him for a long time, the interview with Jonathan Richman is a real highlight of the movie. It makes me hope there’s a Blu-ray someday so you can just release the whole thing as an extra.
[Haynes]: Oh, it’s so fucking great. The whole thing is just, it’s a complete piece. I was crying by the end of it.
Was it your idea for him to have the guitar, or did he just bring it with him?
No, he just brought it. And I mean, come on. It was just so generous and so insightful. And he served the purposes of saying things that I had sort of decided I would not include in this movie: fans, other musicians, critics. It was just going to be about people who were there. That was the criteria. Well, he was there, in spades, and I didn’t realize to what degree.
That picture of him as a teenager with the band, I’d never seen that before.
Fucking crazy. But he could also then speak so informatively as a musician and as a critic and as a fan.