Mon, Feb 1, 2016 at 9:00 AM
“In our 20+ years of writing songs, I’ve learned that no matter how escapist, divergent, or even transcendent the creative process feels, the result is more beholden to what is going on at the moment. It’s hard to admit that one is so influenced by what is in front of us. Doesn’t it come from something magical and far away? No, it comes from here. It comes from now. I’m not going to tell you what this record is about because I have too much respect for that moment when you come to know it for yourself.”
— Alan Sparhawk, Low
I have Napster to thank for my love of Low. Kind of. It was 1998 and a friend showed it to me and installed it on my father’s desktop computer. Having grown up with my parents’ well-curated record collection and their conspicuous, infectious love of music, plus then-current radio and various stages of age-appropriate pop culture fandom (see NKOTB, Madonna and TLC), it wasn’t as though I knew nothing. This mysterious, immediate, and seemingly limitless catalogue of unknown sounds, though—it was manna from heaven.
Cue my high school obsession with Brian Eno and the original Nuggets boxset.
Fast forward to 2002; now studying literature in Germany, a neighbor clues me in to some random music library accessible on our shared server.
Immediately cue Low and their album Things We Lost in the Fire playing on repeat for hours.
I spent much of that year abroad collecting new experiences and attempting to process a lot of the classic existential crises so typical of your early 20s. Low was one of the few bands who helped me along with this. Their often slow-growing, minimal and yet expansive songs just beg for introspection. Demand it, even. They cultivate a sense of grandeur and inquiry with their predominantly melancholic tone, which if you’re anything like me, sets you right down in front of the mirror for some much-neglected self-assessment.
Is Low somehow The Velvet Undergound’s song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” transubstantiated into band form?
As Alan Sparhawk said above, the meanings of the songs are transitory. Even if there was a specific impetus, nothing needs explaining beyond what the song itself reveals. It’s an exercise on Low’s end and when the music is released, it becomes one for us.
So how do I talk about an album without entering specific lyrical territory? What’s left are the feelings evoked; the open-ended melodic stories —which is precisely what Low’s music has always been about: the experience. Touché, Alan.
Ones and Sixes opens with “Gentle,” its list of words building in tandem with the instrumentation. There’s a new element introduced immediately: a hypnotic digital static that grounds the whole thing, reigning in the dynamic swells. Alan and Mimi Parker’s voices come in quickly with that unnerving, fragile and beautiful harmony they’ve perfected, and it all hits me at once. It’s a loaded conversation between ex-lovers. There’s a serious pulsing, blown-out bass and it’s jarring and sad. The intimacy is haunting. It has the same effect as Kate Bush’s “Watching You Without Me” and forces a roll call of all the doomed communication in my life. The song ends as obscured as it begins, unravelling piece by piece. The distorted bass drops out from under you, leaving an almost-punishing monotone, and then only a few guitar chords.
The second song “No Comprende” continues that heaviness in a loaded low end. I get Bad Seeds vibes. Melodically, it’s a call and response between Alan and Mimi, with her ethereal voice floating on top, and I think of gravity at work on a tiny insect on water. There’s more rolling, staticky bass, huge kick drum rumbles, and some slow, almost-Morricone leads over a chugging guitar. The reinvention of Low’s arrangement is staggering. This is headphone music; this is surround sound music.
“Spanish Translation” starts out with a sort of restrained, minimal progression (reminiscent of Galaxie 500) that quickly explodes and just as quickly retreats. The line “everything once within reason” grabs my attention as the echoes swell into white noise and then again cut out abruptly. It forces a slow head-bang and reminds me of my first favorite song of theirs, “Dinosaur Act,” in its simultaneous intensity and restraint. There’s a lot of electronic tones left to decay over the analog sound of simple piano chords. “Everything, always confusion,” indeed.
“No End” starts off with a bang of Baroque pop, its descending melody calling up the Beach Boys, but again, the melody hovers over multiple sources of distortion that continue to root Low in a way I’ve not heard before. The arrangement is uncomplicated, with a blown out driving bass groove, effective stops and starts, and Velvets-esque guitar strumming.
“Into You” is a Mimi solo song, and her voice enters over a simple, overdriven beat, like contemporary R&B with its subdued (though crackling) bassline, and what sounds like a Wurlitzer manipulated through a very digitized-sounding Leslie effect. It’s self-referencing as she sings about what veins carry and what it is that “flows right into you” and the varying speeds of tremolo pulse much the same.
“What Part of Me” reminds me of Lesser Matters Radio Department with the minimal but driving distorted baseline (think a lighter “Why Wont’ You Talk About it?”). It’s groovy and it’s poppy, with a preset drum machine beat, the kind I used to play along to on my uncle’s organ. It’s one of the two upbeat songs on the record, in stark contrast to its central question, “What part of me don’t you own?”
Ones and Sixes takes everything Low excels at and dips it in a heavy gold plating of industrial-leaning electronics. This somehow catapults to new and extreme heights the innate beauty their music has always had. It’s a series of contrasts: stunning and menacing, gorgeous and frightening, giving and desperate, and ultimately, unbearably heavy and unbearably light. From one to six and back again.
—Dee Dee (Dum Dum Girls), NYC, June 2015
Co-produced by Low and engineer BJ Burton at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Eau Claire, WI, Ones and Sixes is the new (and, so far, the best) album from the Duluth-based trio of Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington.
Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 10:30 AM
Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 7:00 AM