Review | Low retain their dreamlike power on eleventh studio album ‘Ones and Sixes’

Low Low

Ones and Sixes

[Sub Pop]

The mid-1990s was that strange time when the mainstream was trying to market the alternative as the mainstream with the music industry desperately in search of the next Nirvana.  It was the period of not so subtle noise rock, flannel shirts and batshit crazily-named bands that were somehow being signed by major labels in the droves. These were the years of Rocket from the Crypt, Circle Jerk and Shoot Cop Shoot. Even if the spotlight was being aimed squarely at the underground, not everyone shared the limelight.

When minimalist trio Low emerged in 1994 with their debut album I Could Live in Hope, they represented everything that rock music wasn’t at the time. They weren’t all that weird and not only where they not loud but they could be aggressively quiet (At early gigs, they had been known to turn their volume down when faced with unresponsive crowds). With their stripped-back sound, leisurely paced tempos and simple instrumentation they would come to embody what became known as ‘Slow-Core’, a term the band both loathe and helped popularise).  It’s a sound they have, for the most part, stuck to, one that they could occasionally be accused of stretching paper-thin but also one that they’ve expanded and  almost perfected (see 2001’s  sublime Things We Lost in the Fire).

Even if they are a group whose music can be easily pigeon holed, Low have had remarkable longevity and a surprisingly diverse back catalogue. Their recent output – including 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way – has been consistently solid, something many bands still going from their heyday could not attest to. New album Ones and Sixes sees them add to that continuity, even if it’s not always necessarily in particularly spectacular fashion.

Ones and Sixes is a work that seems to both make reference to the band’s early years and their more recent past. It’s an LP that displays not only the unassuming intimacy of those first Low records but also the more extroverted tendencies they’ve shown in the last 10 years or so. There are the more simply-arranged tracks (‘Into You’) as well as those more complex ones with denser textures (‘Gentle’). Early standout ‘Spanish Translation’ reflects this interesting dichotomy all in one song while also being reminiscent of one of Low’s best; ‘Dinosaur Act’. Starting out sparsely with that lonely floor tom beat that these guys have made a career out of, the song then erupts into a cacophonous chorus of dual vocals and heart pounding drums until it again returns to more subdued areas.


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If there is one thing we can always be sure of a band like Low, it is that they’ll never give up the mantle of being one of the most consistently pretty-sounding bands around. The tour de force team of Allan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker continue to shine in this respect. With the two being married longer than the group’s existence, they have been the reliable constant and cohesive glue that has ensured this unexpected, lengthy survival.  This dynamic is still going strong and very much apparent on Ones and Sixes with the inviting vocal harmonies providing an emotional core throughout.

On sultry single ‘What Part of Me’, Parker and Sparhawk ask us “What part of me/ Don’t you know?” over some fuzzy electronics and rhythmic strumming. It’s a bittersweet question that you’d expect a couple who’ve been together as long as they have to ask each other but also one that could easily be addressed to their long-time fans. Mid-album highlight ‘The Innocents’ is a song of juxtaposition; the slowly driving techno beats contrasting with our two vocalists’ gently-sung yet cynical proclamation. If you’re innocent, “Make a run for it”, they tell us, in what may very well be a plea to their yet-to-be-corrupted children in a world full of moral compromises. The glorious vocal-led outro makes yet another convincing case for Mimi Parker’s voice being one of the most criminally underrated in all of alternative rock.     

It’s not all a smooth ride, though. The overlong 10 minutes worth of ‘Landslide’ has the band in that somnambular territory that they can, on rare occasion, veer into. There is a bit of sense of this all just feeling like “yet another Low record”.  This is, however, far from the worst problem to have (How many diehard followers of say Pavement or Oasis would desperately wish they could say the same about their 90s icons, for instance?) Even If it is just your standard collection of Low songs, that’s still the kind of quality that many artists would hope they could reach on their best days, never mind on autopilot mode. Ones and Sixes is unassuming, harmonious and probably sounds great live. I’m not sure if these three would have it any other way.