ALBUM REVIEW: LOW – ONES AND SIXES

8/10

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The improbable career of the Duluth, Minnesota based band Low is entering its third decade. They have spanned the globe touring, played the opening spot for Radiohead in 2003 and been covered by rock legend Robert Plant. On September 11th the husband and wife led band released “One and Sixes”, their 11th long play release. “One and Sixes” follows up their excellent 2013 album “The Invisible Way”. “Ones and Sixes” is filled with Low’s trademark minimalism and evocative emotional punch. Their influence can certainly be heard in the work of bands such as Beach House.

Low was formed in 1993 by Vocalist/Guitarist Alan Sparhawk and his wife vocalist/percussionist Mimi Parker. Bassist Steve Garrington has been with the band since 2005. Low is renowned for being leaders in the so called “Slowcore” genre; however they personally never liked the moniker. Low’s discography is as diverse as the producers they have worked with throughout the years. Steve Fisk, Steve Albini, David Friedemann and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy are just some of the producers who have left their imprints on the band and their music. The band released their debut “I Could Live in Hope” in 1994 and garnered many fans and critical attention with the stellar 2001 “Things we Lost in the Fire”. Their albums are pretty evenly split between their trademark plaintively classic sound and the ragged noisy experimentation of their more recent releases. “Ones and Sixes” balances both those facets of the band’s sound blending both ends of the spectrum exceptionally well.

This go round the band recorded in Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Eau Clare, Wisconsin. “Ones and Sixes” was co produced by Low and engineer
B.J. Barton. Wilco drummer Glen Kotche happened to also be in the building and lent a hand on a few songs playing hand percussion. On “Ones and Sixes” the band is operating in their thematic wheelhouse examining subjects like spirituality, emotional unease and the complications of human relationships. These ruminations all take place over cathedral like spiraling guitars and electronic flourishes, displaying Low’s keen ear for detail. They aptly inject into their music the emotions of their musical/romantic journey. The music unflinchingly examines morality, parenthood, and marriage but avoids getting preachy. It becomes quickly apparent that Parker is the emotionally calm center of the band as Sparhawk bobs and weaves through emotional highs and lows. Additionally striking are the shiver inducing harmonies the pair produces.

Ones and Sixes” starts off with the standout “Gentle” which is filled with Low’s signature harmonies. The song displays Low’s finesse with sparse minimalist technique providing serious emotional impact. The lyrics are almost stream of consciousness as they contemplate a relationship or a life ending; “It doesn’t have to end this way, but this is where we stay.” No Comprende” has a tribal beat as the percussion becomes more apparent on this track. The song examines various ways signals get crossed; “Before you try to make assumptions let’s cut to the conclusions.”

The song unreels over a wide soundscape with not a note going wrong. The music is elemental but engaging with the undeniable beauty of Alan and Mimi’s harmonic vocals mesmerizing the listener. On “Spanish Translation” Alan takes the lead vocal with Mimi doing a disembodied back vocal. There is an otherworldly atmosphere to the song. The song suggests that life is confusion until a soul mate provides the translation that makes sense out of everything.

The glichy keyboards in “Congregation” provide an excellent backdrop for Mimi’s lead vocal. Her voice is so warm and expressive it is a given that an enjoyable song will be the end result. The track “No End” is probably the most pop selection on the disc with its hooky guitar riff and it is also the most lighthearted point in the album. Sonically the song reminds me of Bob Mould’s latest solo work. It still retains that dreamy feel with soaring harmonies married to a great rhythm.

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Into You” returns to a more somber and reflective mood. The bassline on this track is stellar, as it conveys the heavy emotional feeling. This song and “What Part of Me” are both illuminated by the enduring marriage of Sparhawk and Parker. Evinced on “Into You” is the mastery of nuanced minimalism on an evocative lullaby of sorts. Hand in hand with “Into You” is the aforementioned “What Part of Me” which is more rock like in vibe but thematically dwells in the same area as “Into You”. The song questions what is left to know after 20 plus years of marriage. The song states that there is comfort in the familiar but also a fear of complacency and suffocation. This is a definite “do not miss” track off the album.

It is at this point in the album that one has to appreciate how precisely each song fits perfectly together, with peaks and valley building to an emotional climax. “The Innocents” is a showcase of Mimi’s amazing warm crystalline vocals. The angelic vocals are a counterbalance to the dark theme. This theme is personified by the gritty synth that acts like an entity chasing and threatening the innocents of the song; “All you innocents make a run for it.” The track is simple but very entrancing. The only song I found a bit disappointing was “Kid in the Corner” which is a little lacking lyrically. It has an upbeat accompaniment and the vocals are so magical that the lack of a lyrical center almost makes no difference to the end result. “Lies” returns to the tribal beat of “No Comprende” with Alan singing lead. The beauty of this song belies the theme, questioning the need to cover the painful truth with lies.

The epic track of the album is “Landslide”, which is lengthy at a clock in time of nine plus minutes but is spellbinding and one of the best songs on an album full of engaging material. The song addresses Alan’s struggles with depression. It describes his battles through pain and out the other side to recovery. It is very moving as it carries all the feelings of anger, fear and sadness over a minimal ethereal landscape. The final tune “DJ” returns to the experimental designs of Low’s former recordings. It is a religious contemplation of sorts. The tribal beat and shimmering guitar produce a dreamy and mesmerizing backdrop for the song. The real gist of the song is found in the lyric; “you want religion, you want assurance, you want resurrection, some kind of purpose, it is not what you say, it is what you take back, I ain’t your DJ you’ve gotta shake that.” The song is quintessential Low and a fantastic way to end the album.

At the over twenty year milestone of Low’s existence it is an accomplishment to have endured and continued to produce the quality music the band has on offer. It is not often that mature bands find something new to say but Low continues to create fresh new engaging songs. Low is sorely underappreciated possibly due to the fact they make it look so easy, it almost seems as though their ability to make this great music is effortless. The crafting and handiwork of the band and their amazingly nuanced ear are exemplary. This is a record worth seeking out. It is satisfying for long term fans and an excellent gateway into Low’s tremendous discography.

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