The breakup record holds a hallowed place in the annals of Rock history. Fleetwood Mac's dewy Rumours, Bruce Springsteen's languid Tunnel of Love and Marvin Gaye's caustic Here, My Dear are all well defined examples of the form.
And yet very few artists have had the audacity to document the totality of their relationships in the way that Parker Noon and Lily Wolfe have over the course of their first three albums. Hello Halo in 2001 showcased the blissful dawn of the couple's personal relationship after years of working together and dancing around the obvious chemistry in their situation, while 2002's Here Comes Winter detailed a more somber middle period, when the rush of love is slightly tarnished by the dullness of familiarity.
Musically, both albums found Noon and Wolfe using the quirks and quibbles of their normally dysfunctional relationship as brilliantly illuminating lyrical fodder while constructing a bachelor pad/French carnival/lounge Pop musical dream state with the endearing menace of Nick Cave and Lou Reed and the melancholy twinkle of Cowboy Junkies and Portishead. Much in the vein of Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, Parker and Lily stripped down the overwrought clichés of love's natural mood swings and then decorated them with just a dash of sympathetic color to make their glaringly truthful revelations more palatable and completely identifiable.
Which brings us inexorably to this year's concluding chapter, the emotionally harrowing and sonically sparse ambience of The Low Lows. Noon and Wolfe began work on The Low Lows last spring, just as they began to recognize the fact that their 10-year personal relationship was clearly in its final stages. As the inevitability of their dissolution loomed in the distance, Noon and Wolfe saw the focus of their third album shift to reflect the end of their decaying romance.
"The first two songs we recorded were kind of up-tempo and more in the vein of what we'd done before," says Noon from the band's van en route to an evening show in New York. "As it all started to slide toward whatever, we started moving into these more organic songs and they wound up being this whole new musical direction. Five- and six-minute songs, long anthemic choruses, more Country, more bleak than where we started, which was more of an urban Stereo Total/Magnetic Fields kind of thing."
As Noon's lyrics told a vitriolic tale of love gone wrong, Wolfe's musical arrangements softened the blow, providing an expansively fuzzy atmosphere, a sound that was also augmented by longtime keyboardist Christina Campbell (who has since departed) and a variety of outside instrumentalists. As hard as it was to hear Noon's pronouncements sometimes, Wolfe knew they were in the throes of creating one of their greatest works even as it came at their own expense.
"There were a couple of lyrical moments that were kind of hard to hear," says Wolfe from the other side of the van. "One was in 'Smashing Party,' which is so angry and so specific. But in the end, if you like what you're making, that transcends any personal badness attached to it, any connotations or pain. In the end you have this beautiful thing, and even if it's about something ugly, you still have something beautiful, and that somehow makes the ugliness a little less ugly."
"Words are very factual and blunt. Music, on the other hand, is very evocative and very emotional," Noon concurs. "It's hard to make a harsh statement with these instruments. The two things taken together would provide an overview of the relationship going wrong. At the last minute, you don't want to say anything but negative things to the other person but there's this vast weight of thwarted longing, the way the love affair could have worked out and the music, for me, conveys the lovely thing underlying the everyday bitterness."
Against all odds, Parker and Lily survived the breakup of Noon and Wolfe. After a five-month hiatus where both parties had time to sort out the feelings brought to the surface by the making of The Low Lows (Noon remained in Manhattan while Wolfe relocated to Athens, Ga.), the band reconvened last fall and began working out new material. With The Low Lows out and garnering great notices and Parker and Lily hitting the road with a hot new band (Daniel Rickard on Farfisa, Jeremy Wheatley on drums), it would be natural to expect some of the album's tumult to spill into its live presentation. Parker and Lily have defused that particular bomb; the band only marginally features songs from The Low Lows, preferring to concentrate on their newest material, which they hope to release as their fourth album before the end of the year.
"We bypassed that whole thing," says Noon. "We're doing 'I Am a Gun' and one or two others, but beyond that, it's all new songs which are a whole new ballgame. The whole band has morphed into a much louder entity. We sort of took 'I Am a Gun,' as a template; it was the last song we wrote (for The Low Lows) and it was the most stretched out and organic, but it got the loudest in the choruses and we started writing from there. We wound up with something more My Morning Jacket than we had previously. It's a more smashing, white noise feedback kind of show, oddly. It's more fun, I tell you."
PARKER AND LILY performs Saturday at The Comet with Machine Go Boom! and Houseguest.