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An Air of Portent That Borders on Menace

After years spent sticking to simple ingredients, Low expands its palette on <em>Drums and Guns</em>.
After years spent sticking to simple ingredients, Low expands its palette on Drums and Guns.

For many years, the Minnesota trio Low drew on only a handful of simple but powerful ingredients: cleanly picked guitar and bass lines, gently brushed drums, lovely male-female vocals, and the silence that hangs between every deliberately paced note. Far more often than not, the result conveyed intensity and aching beauty, but Low's first album came out in 1994, and that's a long time to stick with one bare-bones template.

Slowly but perhaps inevitably, Low has dressed up its sound in recent years, and the new Drums and Guns whirs and clatters and hums with an air of portent that often crosses the line into menace. At times, it feels a bit punishing, and those drawn to the sweetly aching pop of Low's early records may be taken aback by the bleak, even violent dissonance of it all. But on "Belarus" and others, the busy arrangements don't sacrifice the swoon-inducing warmth of Low's past work.

Propelled by clicks, pings and Mimi Parker's ghostly backing vocal, "Belarus" functions as a characteristically oblique Low song: It's built on phrases that set the scene without making an overall meaning clear — "To my mouth / Frozen shut / Mother's son / Paper cup" — and it draws its power from an arrangement that's simultaneously understated and overpowering. Delicate beauty has rarely sounded so brutal, especially once the strings come in.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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