After Low left London's Vernon Yard label due to mutual financial pressures, the band members returned to their residence in Duluth, MN. There, they set up a studio in the basement of Allan Sparhawk (vocals and guitar) and Mimi Parker's (percussion and vocals) home and, along with bassist Zak Sally, set about recording Songs for a Dead Pilot. The album cover image of a stark, winter landscape is an appropriate visual match for the group's music. The mood on Songs is almost overwhelmingly somber and, like much of the band's music, often develops at a glacial pace. Bringing time to a crawl, the band exposes the silence and space in the music to great, occasionally thrilling effect. Low's drama is created in the gaps between guitar chords and snare hits. Engineering their own record allowed the members of Low the freedom to experiment. A washing machine was apparently employed for the low drum thud of "Be There." Deciphering the methods behind "Will the Night" is even more complicated; it would make a strong candidate for the most obscure opening album track. Heard as if from the other end of a tunnel, its melody is almost inaudible through a dense fog of echo. The song would reappear two years later on the Secret Name album, draped in a lush string arrangement that brought the band into new territory. "Born By the Wires," a song stripped to its bare bones, clocks in at over 13 minutes, although the body of the song takes place during the first five. Sparhawk sings in a fragile falsetto like a withdrawn child entertaining himself. The effect is chilling. Following this, the guitarist lapses into eight minutes of a repeated chord. While it seems to entrance the musician, it's the kind of aimless diversion few listeners will have the patience for. "Landlord" has a similar structure yet succeeds through slow, careful development. At its worst, Songs for a Dead Pilot is the sound of unsuccessful experiments on record. Repeated listening will only make its inconsistencies more apparent. However, the best songs ("Condescend," "Be There," and "Hey Chicago") provide the link between two of Low's best full-length recordings: the similarly constructed The Curtain Hits the Cast and the bolder Secret Name.
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AllMusic Review by Nathan Bush