❉ A small selection of some of Mimi Parker of much-loved indie heroes Low’s finest musical moments, highlighting an unassuming but remarkable talent sadly lost.
On Sunday 6th November, it was announced that Mimi Parker, vocalist and percussionist in the US indie band Low, had passed away following a battle with cancer. Parker co-founded the band in 1993 with her guitarist husband Alan Sparhawk, with the pair sharing or alternating lead vocal duties. Over 28 years, 13 albums, and numerous EPs, she played a key role in forging a unique catalogue of deeply felt and quietly astounding music. Usually working as a trio with various long-serving bassists including Zak Sally and Steve Garrington, their world is one of rare beauty and melancholy, rich with sparse atmospherics and sublime vocal harmonies.
Mimi’s contribution to Low’s sound is incalculable, and the following selections are in no way meant as a ranking or a definitive overview of her work. Rather, they are intended to serve as a celebration, highlighting an unassuming but remarkable talent sadly lost, and perhaps as an introduction to the work of this most humble and moving of bands for the uninitiated.
Lullaby, from Low’s 1994 debut album I Could Live In Hope, was one of the first showcases for Parker’s beguiling vocal talents. Over its slow, descending guitar lines, her voice both soothes and shatters before the labyrinthine instrumental of the second half. The words are typically elliptical, seeming to rise from some steep personal abyss, but the warmth of her delivery acts as a consoling light, tenderly threading its way through the desolation.
A song so grief-struck and still that it seems to be happening in slow motion, Shame from 1995’s Long Division is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s early echo-drenched sound. Mimi’s gentle, dignified vocal is impossibly sad against her soft drums and the crystalline guitars, laying bare a terrible, nagging sorrow: “A long time you waited / You thought it had abated.” Once Alan’s quiet harmonies join in the second verse, the effect is so overwhelmingly moving it may leave the unprepared listener in tears.
The sound of 1996’s austerely majestic album The Curtain Hits The Cast is bleak but expansive, redolent of deserted mansions and high ceilings. Coattails builds to a climax of almost hymnal grandeur, like a neglected ghostly procession passing down forgotten hallways, accompanied by Mimi’s graceful timpani rolls and her eerily calm vocal. It also showcases the band’s ability to turn a simple phrase into a profound statement, repeating the minimal lyric over and over again until it becomes freighted with cryptic meaning.
Just Like Christmas
With 1999’s mini-album Christmas, Low achieved the nearly impossible: a seasonal record that is actually good. Sterling versions of traditional carols sit alongside gorgeous original songs, but the icing on the cake is definitely the opening track. Just Like Christmas capers in on a wave of sleigh bells and timpani, irresistibly lovely even as Parker’s vocal insists that “it wasn’t like Christmas at all.” Like Vince Guaraldi’s classic A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, it never lays the sweetness on too thickly, weaving a perfect festive tapestry of joy subtly threaded with an undercurrent of hazy melancholy.
Home to perhaps Mimi Parker’s most extraordinary performance, Laser Beam from 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire aches like a prayer for deliverance. Supported only by spare guitar, her voice soars without ever falling into histrionics, restrained but devastatingly expressive. An utterly transcendent moment from arguably the most accessible Low album, now firmly established as an indie classic.
Over churning guitars, Parker delivers a grave love song that marries its apparently deeply personal message to a universal sense of existential concern. With her voice double-tracked and harmonising with itself, the track builds and builds into a fearsome declaration of care and devotion in the face of wrenching trouble and pain. Unsentimental and starkly powerful, it stands as one of Low’s most affectingly tender works and a highlight of 2011’s C’mon.
The stripped-back and relatively acoustic production of their 2013 album The Invisible Way gave Low the opportunity to highlight a slight but unexpected folk-country side to their sound. The driving, piano-led So Blue unleashes Mimi’s inner Sammi Smith, her gorgeous, resigned voice reaching new heights of ecstatic sadness.
Like its 2018 predecessor Double Negative, 2021’s Hey What showed Low taking a more electronic, distorted approach, a refreshingly bold attack for a band so many years into their career. While the lyrics generally remain enigmatic, both records seem like a defiant attempt to retain a sense of truth and kindness in the face of Donald Trump’s utterly malign influence on American life. On All Night, Mimi’s soothing voice contrasts with B J Burton’s tumultuous production to serve as a powerfully reassuring call to arms, with compassion and honesty the weapons: “All night you fought the adversary / It was no ordinary fight.” Like much of the Low catalogue, the song may be bruised but it never gives in, motivated by sincerity and sadness, with its calm fury always tempered by a deeply humane outlook. Mimi Parker’s death is a cruel loss, but her work with Low will live on, continuing to provide profound solace for anyone who feels the often painfully sharp beauty and sorrow of being alive.
❉ Mimi Parker (1967-2022). Header photo © Mariano Regidor/Redferns.
❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.
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