Low are a fairly amicable band in that you either like the same song they’ve been playing since 1994 … or you don’t. And, if you don’t, besides the preceding The Great Destroyer which saw them add heavier guitars into their formula, they’re pretty easy to ignore (most slowcore bands are). That being said, I really wanted to like Drums and Guns because a) the album title and song titles like “Sandinista,” “Hatchet,” “Your Poison,” “Murderer” and “Violent Past” suggested that Alan Sparhawk had been digging through a new lyrical well b) Mimi Parker was touted as having a larger role than before and c) Drums and Guns was supposed to be the band’s biggest stylistic shift; stretching out guitars until they don’t sound like guitars anymore and relying heavily on electronics.
It turns out all three are true to a degree. A handful of the songs are certainly inspired by the War on Iraq but often are left so ambiguous (I can almost picture a stoner telling me, “They’re not just about the War on Iraq, they’re about the war on life, mannnn” and me wanting to stone him in turn) they don’t amount to anything, and the ones that aren’t don’t amount to much anyway (apparently, regardless of how pretty you are, you’re gonna die, he tells you on “Pretty People,” and gee, fucking thanks for that insight). Mimi Parker does indeed get lead vocals on one (one!) track and that’s not enough for reason to celebrate, and even when she’s on backing vocals, they sometimes feel phoned in; either harmonizing harmlessly (“Always Fade”) or sometimes even cluttering the track (ie. the punctuating sighs in the choruses of “Murderer” on an otherwise spacious track). The worst offender, however, is that the band seems to rely on looping technologies as a crutch to cover up a lack of songwriting. The general gist here is that there’s going to be feedback and a drum loop (“Take Your Time” throws some church bells into the mix), Alan Sparhawk’s going to sing some lines, maybe with the help of his wife, maybe not, the music will be directed through a crescendo – that’s supposed to imply what, exactly? Politics? Get out of here – and a subsequent decrescendo.
The problem here is that some of the tracks are actually hard to ignore. The mixing of Alan Sparhawk’s voice on opener “Pretty People” gives him the intensity of an enthusiastic minister, except he has as much melody as one too (that is to say, none at all), and you realize how limited his voice and whine are – and that’s the first track, no less. “Belarus,” the song that follows, fairs so much better thanks to crooning title from both vocalists (cute pings, too). The 2-minute “Hatchet” and 1-minute “Your Poison” should be trifles, but it’s hard to ignore the pining in either (“They’ll play our songs forever / On the radio” and “If you don’t like my lines good people / You better open wide good people” respectively) and harder still to ignore the abrupt ending cadence of “Hatchet” (“Breaker” suffers the exact same problem) which suggest that the band didn’t know how to properly end a song without the generic fade out, or the cluttered first half of “Your Poison” (remove the interjecting “good people”’s and then we’ll talk, but won’t touch).
Anyway. “Murderer” is a good track. Sonically speaking, it puts the drums in Drums and Guns, offering a left-right march before a continuous fill (ie. at the 1:04 mark) aided by a bass throb muses its way into the scene and reveals how much space there was before it. Lyrically speaking, it puts the guns in Drums and Guns, where, in a single verse, Alan Sparhawk exposes God as a killer (“Don’t act so innocent / I’ve seen you pound your fist into the Earth”) and a glimpse into the mind of a killer who acts in the name of God (“I’ve read your book / It seems you could use another fool /Well, I’m cruel / And I look right through.” Listen especially to how he snarls the italicized line – easily the most interesting moment on the album).
A for effort, C+ for execution