So Sad Today—A Guide To Slowcore

By James Li

For those who don’t know, slowcore is a term coined in the early 90s to refer to bands that rejected the loud-quiet dynamic favoured by grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Instead, slowcore tended to keep things quiet. Other features of slowcore include very slow tempos (hence the name), a minimal approach to songwriting, and woundingly personal lyrics.

Slowcore never emerged from a single music scene, and it never broke into the mainstream. Admittedly, it’s a term retroactively used by music writers and nerds rather than by the practitioners of the genre. Low, one of the most essential slowcore bands, reject the term themselves, but they best represent the genre’s philosophy – they turned their amplifiers down at their shows and invited audiences to sit down. Here’s an introduction to the best bands that this genre has to offer. Let’s get slow.

Low – “Words”

Low are fronted by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, a devoutly Mormon husband-and-wife team from Duluth, Minnesota. But this seemingly ordinary couple make some seriously depressing music. Slowcore is slow, minimal, and quiet, but Low represents the logical extreme of that. Parker’s drum set consists only of a snare and a hi-hat, and Sparhawk’s guitar is virtually absent. The instrumentation might be subtle, but you can’t possibly miss Alan and Mimi’s angelic vocal harmonies, especially on this song.

Red House Painters – “24”

Before Mark Kozelek wrote songs about being a miserable middle-aged man under the name Sun Kil Moon, he was writing songs about being a miserable young man while fronting the San Francisco-based Red House Painters. “24” refers to Kozelek’s age at the time of the recording. This song is a beautiful meditation on getting older – it’s hard to believe that it came from the same person who wrote “War on Drugs: Song My Cock” earlier this year.

Cat Power – “Metal Heart”

Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, is hard to pin down. At different points in her career, Marshall’s been influenced by punk, blues, soul, and electronica, but Moon Pix is Marshall’s slowcore album. She wrote most of the songs on the album in one night after waking from a hallucinatory nightmare. “Metal Heart” was one of them, and it ended up being one of the best Cat Power songs. Marshall beautifully paraphrases “Amazing Grace”: “I was once was lost / but now am found / was blind / but now I see you.”

Smog – “All Your Women Things”

Smog is the recording project of Bill Callahan, who was romantically involved with Chan Marshall when she recorded Moon Pix. Just like his then-girlfriend, Callahan was also a singer-songwriter who liked to take things slow. This song might be the saddest song about lingerie ever written. Callahan sorts through “all your bridges and bras / your cotton and gauze / all your buckles and straps / releases and traps.” It might be a little creepy, but it’s also heartbreaking: “Well, it’s been seven years / and the thought of your name / still makes me weak in the knees.”

Galaxie 500 – “Strange”

The Boston trio Galaxie 500 were one of the most important slowcore pioneers, recognizable by frontman Dean Wareham’s reverb-laden guitar and shrill tenor. They were heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, especially by their intimate and pared-down self-titled third album. This song is one of the liveliest in Galaxie 500’s catalogue and dizzingly fast by slowcore standards (translation: it’s midtempo). This is probably the saddest song about going to the drugstore and eating Twinkies.

Codeine – “D”

It’s fitting that a slowcore band would name themselves after an opiate. Codeine are definitely very slow, but they were heavier than most of their slowcore contemporaries. These New Yorkers had just as much in common with post-hardcore bands like Slint as they did with their slowcore peers. This song depicts a dependent relationship: “D for effort / D for intent / D because you pay the rent / D for love / D for insight.” D for depressing too, I suppose.

Bedhead – “Liferaft”

It’s also fitting that a slowcore band would take a sleep-related name. This Dallas band, fronted by brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, are notable for their intricate guitar work. Bedhead’s biggest advantage was having three guitarists in their lineup, giving them more complexity and versatility as needed. The titular liferaft in the song refers to a bed. If you or someone you know likes to stay in bed all day, you can probably relate to this song.

Tiny Vipers – “Dreamer”

I learned about Tiny Vipers, the project of Seattle singer-songwriter Jesy Fortino, from her collaboration with Grouper. Which makes sense, because Fortino’s acoustic folk has more in common with Grouper’s ambient music than with her bearded folkie Sub Pop labelmates like Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine. “Dreamer” is centered on a repetitive guitar arpeggio that’s played so quietly that it’s barely there. The emphasis is all on Fortino’s haunting voice, especially the way she delivers the line “I’m going to die but I’m dying for a way out.”

The Antlers – “Kettering”

The Antlers are probably the most familiar band on this list. This Brooklyn trio started off as the solo project of singer-songwriter Peter Silberman. This track is off of Hospice, The Antlers’ concept album about the tragic romance between a cancer patient and a nurse. The Antlers’ music is as instrumentally light as it is emotionally heavy. It’s difficult not to be moved by Silberman’s quavering falsetto, and Sharon Van Etten’s guest vocals are pretty good too.

Julie Doiron – “The Longest Winter”

Julie Doiron is probably New Brunswick’s most famous musical export. She fronted the lo-fi outfit Eric’s Trip before branching out in her solo career. This song is off of her Juno-winning collaboration with the Ottawa band The Wooden Stars. Just like the title suggests, this song is emotionally chilling and glacially slow.

Lisa Germano – “…a Psychopath”

This track is off of violinist Lisa Germano’s debut Geek the Girl, a semi-autobiographical concept album. As Germano explains in the album’s liner notes, the album tells the story of a troubled and insecure teenage girl. This particular song was inspired by Germano’s experience with a stalker. Germano’s whispered vocals and wailing violin, combined with excerpts from a 911 call, make for a disturbing listen.

Arab Strap – “New Birds”

Calling Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat a singer is a little generous. It’s more like he’s reading the lyrics in a whisky-soaked Scottish brogue over Malcom Middleton’s bare instrumentation. But Moffat’s poetic approach works with his vividly detailed storytelling. And anyone can relate you lines like “when you were wee and lying in your bed and listening to love songs and pretending they were about you.”

Low – “Do You Know How to Waltz?”

“Do You Know How to Waltz?” is Low’s crowning achievement, and probably the pinnacle of slowcore. And yes, it was completely necessary to have more than one Low song on this list.

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