I first heard Mimi Parker's voice in 1999.
It began with an oh — clear, warm and sustained like a fuzzy pedal organ at an old church. Then a la la la — slightly more staccato, yet still inviting, a complementary contrast to the la la'd yowl of Alan Sparhawk. The song was built on three chords, short phrases and wordless murmurs that mount a steady, snowy climb — slow and hymn-like, but somehow punk.
We'll call it Starfire, who will know? (Ohhhh)
How could a band do so much with so little, then leave me a crumbling mess afterward?
Low appeared on a pair of mix CDs made by a friend online. With only a 56k dial-up and limited funds, I requested 3-song samplers of Rainer Maria, Mineral, Ida and other sad-adjacent bands that I'd seen referenced on message boards. Even though the mix CDs are gone, I can still see the clear, neon-colored clamshells and track list in an all-uppercase Arial font. There was one song from Low's I Could Live in Hope, two from The Curtain Hits the Cast and three from Secret Name, which had just come out that year. In the note attached, he explained why there were so many Low songs, specifically detailing the one-two-three shot of "Starfire," "Two-Step" and "Weight of Water" from Secret Name.
On "Two-Step," Mimi's soft vibrato warbled, but never wavered from the pitch, as if holding my hand in unsteady seas. The same goes for "Weight of Water," which, to my teenage youth group ears, immediately seized upon the sacred imagery — the mystery of faith, slightly blurred by abstract lyrics.
On a school trip to University of Georgia with the literary magazine staff for which I was editor-in-chief (because of course), I finally bought a copy of Secret Name for myself at SchoolKids Records. (Our faculty advisor, and my favorite teacher, basically used the trip as an excuse to show us downtown Athens; it worked. I'd spend the next five years there.) To this day, it remains my sentimental favorite, but every Low album reveals gifts and chaos in unexpected ways.
I've seen Low several times: at the 40 Watt in Athens; at the 9:30 Club, U Street Music Hall and the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. When they played a Tiny Desk in 2011, I invited my friend Catherine Lewis to the taping — she was Low's first webmaster (during that time when fanpages sometimes became official sites) and their kids' sometimes babysitter. Catherine asked me if there was ever a song I'd ever wanted to see Low play live. Without thinking, I answered, "'Starfire.'" Mimi responded, "How does that one go?" and pulled out her iPod. That night at the Black Cat, Alan dedicated "Starfire" to "Lars with the most gorgeous, long blonde hair." It's a moment I will never forget.
When I saw that Mimi had died, I wept. I was not OK. Friends texted, for which I am grateful. As a listener, as a person of faith, as someone who is also weirdly private but also knows when to let people in when needed, Mimi and Alan understood and demonstrated graceful ways to let those things be complicated, which have been useful to me personally and professionally.
At the time, I couldn't bring myself to memorialize; in recent years, I've had a strange relationship with grief around musicians who have made eureka-level emotional impacts on my life. In as much as one can measure such things, Low is not just one of my favorite bands, but a lifelong companion.
But yesterday I put on the record where everything began for me. The tears were warm, but the music was warmer: Just leave me to the river / Let it cleanse my face / I have no power to ward it / Like the baptism of the earth.
Stream the Viking's Choice playlist via BNDCMPR. Tracklist below:
Maria Bethânia & Gal Costa, "Sonho Meu" (RIP Gal Costa)
Beauty Pill, "Fugue State Companion"
Lucrecia Dalt, "Gena"
Việt Tài Chính, Láu Cá, Pilgrim Raid, "ĐTĐ"
Roland P. Young, "There"
Natalie Yorke, "Chutney Boy"
Yo La Tengo, "Fallout"
Nathan Salsburg, "XII"
Avram Fefer Quartet, "Juba Lee"
LIPS!!, "BAD INFLUENCE"
Ett Eko, "Side Effect"
Sex Virgin Killer, "Mirror"
En Attendant Ana, "Principia"
Mary Jane Dunphe, "Just Like Air"
One Leg One Eye, "I'd Rather Be Tending My Sheep"
Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy, "Offering"
Floating Points, "Someone Close"
Hellish, "Dreamlike Fears"
Ocean of Ghosts, "Glorious Wrath"
Matthew J. Rolin, "Gravel"
Low, "Point of Disgust"
Nana Grizol, "Black Box (M. Street)"
Barabbas, du förtappade, "Regrets of Something Impossible"
Oak Pantheon, "Bard of the Hell-Bent Ages"
Non Band, "Wild Child (Can't Stand It)"
Low, "Laser Beam"