December 31, 2022

Just Stand Back: Remembering Mimi Parker

"Here comes the knife 
You better just stand back
I could turn on you so fast"

Those lyrics, from the Low song "Just Stand Back," resonated anew last month. On November 6, the Duluth, Minnesota indie act's Twitter announced that its co-founder Mimi Parker had passed of cancer at age 55. Hers was a life lived, along with husband-collaborator Alan Sparhawk, in the service of uncompromising art. Parker's voice, woven with Sparhawk's, was a glowing beacon amid ominous yet mesmerizing music.  

Like a viper lying in wait, "Just Stand Back" strikes the listener about a third of the way into the dense and jarring thicket of the 2005 album The Great Destroyer. It's an admittedly obscure corner of their musical legacy, but in line with the majesty and mystery of their overall body of work, it captivates just the same. 

The guitar chords of "Just Stand Back" scuff and jangle as the song begins. Sparhawk, with his dry yet pleading voice, invites you in ("It's a hit / It's got soul," he sings). But once Parker joins in to harmonize with her partner, the shimmering magic of Low is revealed: "Just Stand Back" blossoms into an eerie campfire song. It churns and burns, seemingly daring the listener to interpret what lyrics like "Here comes the knife" and "I could turn on you so fast" mean to them. "With a swing like that / You better just stand back" is delivered by Parker and Sparhawk with such co-conspiratorial confidence, it both inspires awe and telegraphs danger.

Like Minnesota's countless lakes, "Just Stand Back" is just one place to dip into when it comes to Low's music. There are 13 studio LPs, and The Great Destroyer is just the seventh. It's an expansive songbook of cathartic noise, experimentation and abject sonic bravery. Parker co-created hymns for the struggling and the painfully alone, her voice and drums tossed like lifelines to anyone needing them. 

Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low
In the realm of indie rock it's easy to become cynical and write off bands like Low as cult entities or just another Pitchfork-approved act of the week. It would be inaccurate to say they're easily accessible or widely known; the phrase "musicians' musicians" comes to mind. Tagged as slowcore, they've been heavily acclaimed in some corners, particularly for their last two albums, Double Negative (2018) and HEY WHAT (2021). Both of these releases garnered Low some of the strongest notices of their career, remarkably for work awash in digital distortion and static. Transgressive? Boundary-pushing? Avant-garde? All of the above, and then some. 

Low did see an unlikely cheerleader emerge from the rock world. Their songs "Silver Rider" and "Monkey" (both from The Great Destroyer) were covered by Robert Plant on his 2010 album Band of Joy. And the day after Parker's death, Plant performed "Everybody's Song" and "Monkey" at his concert in Glasgow, Scotland. Elsewhere, tributes poured in from admirers including Sigur Rós, Tool's Maynard James Keenan, Will Sheff, El-P of Run the Jewels, and producer Steve Albini. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even shared a cover of Low's "I Hear... Goodnight" on his Substack newsletter page. Onstage in South America November 8, Father John Misty talked about how important Low was to him, and performed a cover of the band's "In the Drugs." And this month, Phoebe Bridgers and Storefront Church released their take on the 1994 Low song "Words."

The marriage and creative partnership of Parker and Sparhawk has precedent in popular music, but it should be noted that they stayed together and thrived artistically until the end. In this one aspect, they're more like Johnny and June Carter Cash than say, Richard and Linda Thompson or Jack and Meg White. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, as well as the War and Treaty (Tanya Trotter and Michael Trotter, Jr.) are current examples of couples doing terrific work together. It all just underlines the inherent sadness and sense of loss when one half of a creative duo leaves this earth. 

Parker's voice dispelled the darkness. In joining her husband on songs of emotional turbulence matched by their music's noisy commotion, she shared her gift to magnificent effect. A phenomenal artist, gone too soon.