Low: Ones and Sixes Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are four reactions, four impressions, four takes on Ones and Sixes by Low.
Ben Zientara, @BenZientara
To me, Low has always been Someone Else’s Band. That is, I have several friends who’ve loved them since I Could Live in Hope, but I never fell in love with them. Sure, I owned nearly all of their ‘90s records on various formats; I’ve sung along with emotional fortitude to “Over the Ocean” and “Venus”; I’ve attended the famously staid shows in the First Avenue mainroom whereat thin, well-groomed couples sat on the sticky checkerboard floor and hung their heads as the band softly plunked their instruments and quietly moaned lyrics into microphones.
Those shows left me cold, and Low’s ability to craft beauty from minimal instrumentation and arrangement just never got to me like it go to others. The most I could muster was a healthy respect for their craft and a willingness to listen to whatever new thing they’d just released—an impulse that was all but obliterated after the release of their Sub-Pop debut, The Great Destroyer, which seemed an awful lot like a turn toward a poppier, audience-focused (read: pandering) attitude for the band (hat tip to the “Rock the Garden” performance, though).
But I was younger then, and concerned with things like whether a band long adored by underground audiences was “selling out.” These days, I’m a little less likely to pass judgment so quickly on perceived intentions. These days, the songs and the sounds are all that matters. I can even admit that some of those mid-career Low records hold some appeal.
So what of Low’s newest, Ones And Sixes? Well, it’s pretty good, if a bit disjointed. Sonic influences are all over the place, which given my predilection for sounds, man, works pretty well, actually. The opening track, “Gentle” begins like a Mogwai song and later includes stereo panning and chopped vocals reminiscent of mid-aughts Thom Yorke. “No Comprende,” the first single off the record, builds tension with punchy, staccato menace, then, just past the three-minute mark, breaks into the best (despite its lack of distortion) doom metal riff of 2015. “Spanish Translation” sounds like Guided By Voices shouting out a Joe Henry song, and “No End” can be best described as Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac playing a Brian Wilson tune.
Actually, Fleetwood Mac influence is all over this thing, with the aforementioned “No End” kicking off a six-song set in which Mimi channels Christine McVie and proves that she’s the real dynamic voice behind Low—something I hadn’t heard from her before. She sounds more confident than ever before, and it’s pretty great. Holy shit you have to hear how she dominates the end of “Lies.” It’s really something.
Ironically, “Landslide,” the 10 minute-long centerpiece of the album, is when the Mac attack ceases and the doom returns. The first half of the song is a fuzzy, driving dirge that sees the band doing its best Swans impression, which gives way to a fragile interlude that calls back to the Low of ages past, which in turn builds to a wildly cathartic post-rock fervor that sizzles with guitar heroism and grandeur of emotion. Album closer “DJ” exhibits Low as a 4AD tribute band, while staying true to the sonic niche the band has carved out for the past two decades. It’s a fitting place to end such a variegated set.
Like me, Low is older, too, and it’s great to hear how they’ve matured since I’ve last paid attention. The confidence is something that wasn’t there in the ‘90s, or the ‘00s, really. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the recording in Justin Vernon’s studio—that guy’s never shy about embracing his influences. The experimentation surely is, and in the Age of the Playlist, there’s plenty on Ones and Sixes to fit any number of moods and have people asking “who is this?”
I’ll dispense with the biographical and formal details, as I’m sure I haven’t followed the band’s more recent arc as closely as some. I can assure you Ones and Sixes is not Low’s debut record.
What I can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, is that this seems to be their most ‘headphony’ album, in which they’ve taken a more decidedly meticulous approach to sound design. Throughout the tracks, crystalline crackles vacillate between caverns, cathedrals, infinitely deep catacombs…. and then are dramatically (yet intimately) panned and set on quietly dried plateaus, the kind where one can suddenly be exposed to the terrifying pulse of blood in the ears…. or maybe that’s a perfectly intoned, near-sub-bass frequency in the song’s bridge I’m hearing? At times, one experiences a vague uncertainty about whether or not hearing a fried speaker or an intentional production detail. I love that. Ones and Sixes would sit comfortably in the Bedroom Community label milieu (Ben Frost, etc.), or what one might call the ‘gentle surprises’ school of production: each track a slow unwrapping of a carefully configured aural gift box.
Which is not to say what we hear is overly or gratuitously ornate; there’s thankfully nothing too cloyingly clever or needy in this ‘sound design’ mode. (I hate the awkward records where it’s as if the engineer is back there basically SCREAMING: “HEY, CHECK ME OUT BACK HERE, GUYS!!!!”) That business of hyper-detail can so easily distract from the whole package and often diminishes total impact. Ones and Sixes makes seriously deft production gestures and almost impossible sonic sweeps occur where you think they ought not, but it never comes off as a distracting sideshow, because, well, it IS the show itself. We’re not hearing a series of audible gimmicks so much as a carefully laid-out textural collage. The tackier gimmicks- thankfully avoided hear- are especially common in the work of artists less fierce and bold than this one, the old strategy of fancying up a song that doesn’t hold much weight on it’s own.
But Low has always been pretty fucking audacious. The songs as overt as ever, laid bare with no new superfluous tricks for a tried/true formula. I think of the whole project as essentially gauze, wrapping for a vague spiritual wound that can’t really ever be dressed. There’s no pretension of a core, other than the well-known relationship at the center of the group, and the sheer simple gravity of the songs. Peeling back the layers of this expertly wrapped mummy reveals nothing more than the perennial, imperturbable essence of the band Low, i.e. punk.
No matter how happy and carefree I feel, I am never really more than one Low album away from the crushing weight of intense angst/introspection. Perhaps that says more about me than the music of Low, but I have always felt that the trio’s music has the startling ability to subvert my emotional state. And their newest record Ones and Sixes is no exception. It’s full of the kind of sweeping, dramatic melodies that as a listener its easy to take for a ride, both to the heights as well as the lowest depths. There isn’t much in-between, to the point where one begins to wonder whether the Sparhawks ever express any feelings that aren’t seared to a crystalline intensity. But the middle ground isn’t, of course, whats interesting about Low’s music.
The sound’s polarization also extends beyond emotion and into the sonic arrangement. On Ones and Sixes The best example is probably “Landslide” an opus that transforms abruptly from ominous hard rock into a sort of dreamy hymnal about a third of the way into the son’s ten vivid minutes. Other songs follow the rollercoaster format, bringing the listener to peaks (“What Part of Me”) to valleys (“All You Innocents”). Its a powerful ride and I think one of the best that Low has taken us on thus far. Even after only a few listens its become one of my favorite Low albums, even if it generally leaves me falling apart inside.
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