Release Date: Sep 11, 2015
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Dream Pop, Sadcore, Slowcore
Somehow, with each new release (and they come regularly, every two or three years), Low manage to find new ways of protracting their deceptively beautiful melodies. Each new page in their story serves to remind that they are so much more than the ‘slowcore’ caricature still occasionally used as a line of critical attack. Their last album, the Jeff Tweedy produced The Invisible Way, foregrounded natural acoustics, piano and the vocals of Mimi Parker.
If ever a band may be described as having become a cult institution than it’s Low. The Minnesotan trio – Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington – have spent over two decades winning over a modest, but devoted, fanbase with their songs of faith and doubt. The band’s output has been remarkably consistent given the length of their career, but the almost unanimous verdict – two years on – remains that their last full-length, The Invisible Way, was something of a misstep.
Low’s new record, Ones and Sixes, is an interesting weather forecast. While their music almost always sounds like something best suited to dawn or dusk, this new record’s sonics create a picture where there’s no beautiful pink in the sky just as the sun rises or sets. Instead, it’s gray and clouded over. If snow has fallen, it’s the kind that’s foreboding rather than fun.
“Feel-bad days can end. Anyone can understand, anyone can ruin the plan.”– GoGoGo Airheart, “Love The Depression” Clarion calls of all sorts dissolve at the lip of the void faster and faster everyday. Enthusiasts could easily be made to feel like turniphead Ostriches. But as the benevolent wonderopolis.org would gently, exhaustively like to point out, Ostriches aren’t burying their heads, but turning their eggs with their beaks.
Low, an uncommonly quiet band from Duluth, Minnesota, for two decades one of American music’s most resonant mainstays, are a band capable of exquisite bittersweetness, of controlled seething, of renditions of The Little Drummer Boy that will have you bawling into your eggnog. Now they sound even better, thanks to a little digital tailoring. In days of yore, “going digital” was a major statement.
Over the course of 11 albums, Duluth, Minnesota, outfit Low have been responsible for work of a remarkable consistency, almost as if their discography has been an exercise in stylistic refinement rather than reinvention. Here then, is another excellent effort – it might not reinvent the wheel, but it reveals a band whose potency remains undiminished, setting critically high standards for themselves. For those as yet unfamiliar, Low’s modus operandi is a slow-burning and repetitious – often bleak and glacial – sound, punctuated by raw outbursts of guitar courtesy of lead singer Alan Sparhawk.
It’s fairly common knowledge that tortoises owe their epic lifespans, hundreds of years in some cases, to their excruciatingly slow metabolism. The same holds true for other large, slow beasts, like whales, elephants, and Duluth, Minnesota’s pioneering slowcore purveyors, Low. Alan Sparhawk and his romantic and musical partner Mimi Parker’s eleventh record in a little over two decades, Ones and Sixes, might be the product of a similar phenomenon: “I can’t explain / The slowing of my brain / The underlying vein / That flows right into you,” says the latter, who shares vocal duties with her husband, on the oh-so-slow “Into You,” a wooden block tap-tapping almost inaudibly under keyboard chords that bleed into each other like those lyrical fluids.
Minnesota’s minimal miserabilists Low have released such a wealth of material that diving into it now is as daunting as attempting to start The Sopranos. But their output rewards commitment, gently shapeshifting with each album. Ones and Sixes, their 11th, moves their sound on from the warm guitars of 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way into colder, starker territory, striking a balance between their majestic, slow-moving melancholy and harsher experimental noise.
Low will always be considered the quintessential slowcore band, but their real mastery, and the secret to their decades-long vitality, lies in something more intangible than tempo. They have a preternatural mastery of arrangement and dynamics, an instinct for when and how to pick the exact right moment to lift the volume a bit, to accent a repetitive moment with this synth line or that fuzzed guitar. The steady pace and the melancholy atmospherics are important, but without their keen ear for detail, the music would simply be a haze.
It’s an unfortunate reality that, more often than not, bands do not last the test of time - and the ones that do are often born from unsuspecting circumstances. Duluth, Minnesota’s Low, for example, emerged from a landscape of grunge in which every A&R of the period was frantically looking for the next Cobain. Little did they know, that of all the abrasive acts that we have now largely forgotten, it would be a quiet and unobtrusive sound that would still be alive over twenty years on.
Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk and their bassist (Steve Garrington has served in the role since 2011) have long been making only two kinds of records; completely essential, passionate, cohesive and cogent statements, or those that are merely excellent and serve as a nice collection of tunes. In the former camp, think Things We Lost in the Fire's elegiac culmination of their initial years as slowcore progenitors, The Great Destroyer's Dave Fridmann-led fury, or Drums and Guns' war outrage made pretty and unsettling (and repeated effectively at the infamous "Drone, not drones" one-song set at the 2013 Walker Art Center Rock the Garden). The latter group would contain, let's say, Trust's water-treading in Fire's wake, C'mon, and its overcorrection after the aforementioned Fridmann fury, and Ones and Sixes, Low's twelfth full-length (or eleventh, depending on whether you consider Songs For a Dead Pilot an EP), another nice collection of tunes that lacks the urgency of their essential work but still comes with plenty to recommend.
As long as Minnesota’s minimal rock institution Low can continue making albums, there will surely be people eager to buy them. ‘Ones And Sixes’ is their eleventh in just over two decades, during which time they’ve weathered some personal turmoil but have become a widely-admired part of American indie’s furniture. The challenge, then, is to maintain their essence without merely revising past glories.Low’s glacially slow, sparsely arranged music has been tended to by several producers over the years – most recently Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, on 2013’s largely successful ‘The Invisible Way’.
Low are slow. The sedateness, the slow velocity, of the band’s early years persist as the hallmarks that distinguish the group from so many trends that have come and gone since 1994 debut I Could Live in Hope. Though it is the memory of that slowness, as opposed to its present fact, that clouds the critical conversation about Low. 2002’s Trust (the direct middle of the band’s discography so far) was a turning point, after which the textures and tempos of the band would be less settled or predictable.
Personally, no music genre seemed as tied to a single band as slowcore was to Low. In the intervening years, I realized the importance and greatness of other bands given that heading (Galaxie 500, Radar Bros., etc.), and Low have pushed beyond the boundaries attributed to the genre. But to this day, the word slowcore evokes Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s haunted harmonies and a drum playing the heartbeat of someone feeling the pained moments the singers often evoke.
Low have been indie rock's most economical songwriters for 20 years and running, but their 11th LP takes a bold step toward pop. "What Part of Me," with its upbeat percussion, fuzzy guitar textures and sweet harmonized lyrics about relationship boundaries ("What part of me don't you own?"), feels like a sideways response to the post-1989 maximalism of today's Top 40; "Into You" is a gospel-inflected, subtly sexy slow jam; and "The Innocents" sets accusatory vocals over a crunching electro-industrial beat, all to excellent effect. Elsewhere, on the gentle, pained duet "Lies," Low remind us they're still masters of doing a lot with a little.
Low’s atmospheric eleventh studio album offers fans plenty of diverse songs that are nostalgic enough to remind of their earlier albums such as ‘Long Division’, however simmering with a wonderful electronic undercurrent. While echoing guitars are at the forefront of the tracks featured, ‘Ones and Sixes’ distinguishes itself from earlier records in that it’s built on a foundation of diverse electronic sounds. From the rhythmic yet minimalist electronic beats found in ‘Congregation’ and ‘Into You’.
If the relative warmth and hopefulness of 2011's C'mon and 2013's The Invisible Way had you wondering if Low were starting to get happy on us after all these years, don't fret -- 2015's Ones and Sixes shows that anxiety and grief are still the dominant emotions in Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's world. While Low's two previous albums boasted production and instrumental accompaniment that brought out an emotional generosity that was a real change from the cool isolation of their best-known work, for Ones and Sixes the group and producer BJ Burton have opted for a stark and chilly sound, dominated by electronic pulsebeats and waves of polished noise that give the songs an unforgiving, alien backdrop. Despite the brushed aluminum sound of much of the album, one of the greatest strengths of Low's work for Sub Pop has been the beauty of Sparhawk and Parker's vocals, with their harmonies sounding even stronger with the passage of time, and that's just as true on Ones and Sixes, as the humanity of their voices gives this music a hint of body heat and warm breath.
Low — Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop)Photo by Zoran OrlicThe distant drone that opens Ones and Sixes will be familiar to long-time fans of Low, and it has a certain association; similar sounds are subtly woven through their darker efforts like The Curtain Hits the Cast, Trust and Drums and Guns. Of course, it’s not so long ago that the trio didn’t have much in their oeuvre to contrast their starker side; it’s only with 2011’s bright, often wryly funny C'mon and 2013’s warmly empathetic The Invisible Way that Low have made records that really pull away from the rigorous chill and tightly controlled passion at the core of much of the trio’s work (even 2001’s beloved Things We Lost in the Fire seems with more historical context to be more of a half-step towards their recent thaw than anything else). As with most bands worth listening to 20 years(!) into their career, Low have become adept at the skill of being neither slavishly devoted to their past nor afraid of it, and with Ones and Sixes they’ve pulled together many of their disparate sides in a masterful survey of what makes them one of the great rock bands of their era.
Masters of transforming emptiness into swelling, sweeping orchestrations of musical and mental noise, Low are truly intense and joyful on their newest exhibition of off-kilter, subterranean pop. Despite its relatively minimal instrumentation, virtually every song here crackles and hums with distorted, altered familiarity. Twenty-two years since forming Low in Minnesota, spouses Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker still sing harmonies impeccably.
The earliest recordings by Low now sound like faded memories, snapshots of a band that would reach its creative apex later in life. Where some artists grow softer and more introspective as they age, the Minnesota-based trio of guitarist Alan Sparhawk, drummer Mimi Parker, and bassist Steve Garrington has darted into another direction entirely. Over the past decade, notably since signing to Sub Pop Records, Low has been unrelenting in shaking loose of its initial association as a somnambulistic ensemble.
'Ones and Sixes,' new album from Low. 'Ones and Sixes,' new album from Low.. Don’t let the gentle demeanor fool you. Low’s music tends to be typecast as slow and quiet, but the typecasters couldn’t be more wrong. Slow, maybe, but there’s often something profoundly disquieting about the ….
The title of Low's new album Ones And Sixes seems like a statement of intent - instead of existing in the middle ground, they would rather take risks, even if the results may divide opinion. Over the band's twenty plus years - husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, along with more recent recruit Steve Garrington, have constantly found ways to push their sound into different shapes. Initially they set themselves some pretty narrow parameters: drums, guitars, vocals - tempos slowed down to a sub-funeral march and songs stripped down to their bare bones.