The consensus on The Great Destroyer, Low’s seventh full-length and first for Sub Pop, is that it represents a Great Departure. Adjectives that have never before appeared in reviews of the Duluth, Minn.-based trio — “aggressive,” “loud,” “rocking” — have been edging out the usual descriptors (“hushed,” “narcoleptic,” “austere”). If anyone took rock critics halfway seriously (thank goodness, no one does), such talk might cause widespread rioting among devotees of the so-called slow-core movement, which Low is widely credited for pioneering way back in the mid-’90s. Never fear, loyal sad sacks: Everything’s relative. What’s “aggressive,” “loud,” and “rocking” for Low would still be positively funereal for most rock bands, and a few Marshall stacks and distortion pedals do not a Motörhead make.
If The Great Destroyer isn’t quite the sea change that hysterical geeks would like to pretend it is, it nevertheless marks an evolution of Low’s sound. Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips) co-produced the CD, and his penchant for rococo noise, lushly layered synths, and bludgeoning drums is evident on most of the 13 tracks. Although the prevailing tempo is largo, with occasional excursions into moderato, the less-is-a-bore ethos makes the songs sound more urgent and energetic, if not exactly lively. The opening track, “Monkey,” begins with a migrainous synthetic buzz that persists throughout the song. The next song, “California,” boasts sludgy guitars and crashing cymbals; even though it’s about a heartbroken farmer forced into retirement, it might be the perkiest Low offering yet and wouldn’t, in fact, sound out of place on an episode of The O.C. (If you’re reading this, McG, dump that Phantom Planet theme song already and use Low’s “California” instead.)
Despite Fridmann’s thunderous production, The Great Destroyer wisely retains the best elements of Low’s aesthetic. The clarion harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the most affecting husband-and-wife vocal team since Richard and Linda Thompson, are still front and center, and their melancholy, self-deprecating lyrics are always discernible through the distortion. Low might not be the quietest indie-rock outfit anymore, but it’s reassuring to know that mere volume can’t destroy its greatness.
Only in the Fiery Furnaces’ peculiar universe can a 41-minute, 10-track CD qualify as an EP. Once upon a time, when vinyl reigned supreme, four or five songs per album side was the rule, not the exception. But given that the Furnaces’ previous CD, last year’s epic Blueberry Boat, clocked in at nearly 80 minutes, the old standards no longer apply. Fans of the brother-and-sister duo aren’t likely to complain, however. EP consists of nonalbum cuts — singles and B-sides, some of them dramatically rearranged — with an emphasis on individual songs rather than the weighty concepts that made the two preceding full-lengths a tad pretentious in places. When it comes to the siblings Friedberger, a surfeit of ideas is both their gift and their undoing. Depending on your tolerance for all things prog, the songs are either grand suites or ADD-inspired messes: You might marvel at the way that Matthew and Eleanor reject the timeworn verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of multimovement, sonatalike sprawl, or you might dismiss them as Emerson, Lake & Palmer wannabes, throwbacks to those pre-punk days of headphones and hallucinogens. If you belong to the latter camp, EP might be your gateway drug to lasting Fiery Furnaces addiction. It’s still chockablock with funny little codas and crazy production flourishes, and some tracks, such as “Smelling Cigarettes” and “Sullivan’s Social Slub,” are more like several shortish songs strung together than straightforward pop tunes, but there’s no denying those hooks. If ELP were even half as catchy, maybe “prog” wouldn’t be such a dirty word.