Music

Low: Ones and Sixes

Low's Ones and Sixes is surprising for sounding very much of the moment.


Low

Ones and Sixes

Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: 2015-09-11
Amazon
iTunes

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. Now, Low are sometimes slow and soft, but just as likely to be urgent and loud.

Yet there is another way in which Low could be generally framed by slowness. Setting aside the compositional features of individual songs and albums, we could see in Low a band not quick to seize the current sound or shape of rock 'n' roll. To not fit into a prevailing style. To not be influenced by hype; to instead move along at a more gradual pace. While Low’s songs have occasionally reached millions of people through advertisements or television shows or films, such appearances never seemed calculated to invite millions along for the ride. For the most part, Low has sustained a steady career by never being anyone’s next big thing.

Yet Ones and Sixes is surprising for sounding very much of the moment. The currency of the album is uncharacteristic for Low, but the motivations for that nowness are hardly important. After all, no group embarking on its third decade together should be disparaged for relevance. Ones and Sixes follows The Invisible Way (2013), which was Low’s least engaging album to date. This variance in quality has become somewhat predictable, as Low’s LP cycle in the decade since The Great Destroyer (2005) could be characterized as “one on, one off”. So it must be noted that Ones and Sixes sounds like the product of Great Destroyer/C’mon (2011) Low -- a band switched-on and with purpose.

The feature that most causes Ones and Sixes to fit into its time and place is unsettling electronic production that is similar to recent movie soundtrack albums by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Various sorts of sonic experimentation, electronic percussion, etc., decorate songs that are otherwise quite recognizable as the product of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Sparhawk and Parker haven’t traded their signature for another, but they have adorned it considerably.

On opening track “Gentle,” distorted sounds move from speaker to speaker like gnats that cannot be swatted away. The effect is that the ear never settles easily on the melody. In the second half of the song, prominent electronic bass underlies Parker’s lead vocals. Working with producer BJ Burton, Low appear to be on much more sure footing with this album’s experimentation than they were with the unorthodox mixing/production choices on Drums & Guns from 2007.

The compressed drums and loud mastering of single “No Comprende” challenge the listener. Mixing choices turn a simple composition into anything but easy listening. What grounds the song, initially, is some inventive new interplay of Sparhawk and Parker’s voices. But the real stunner comes with the third act, introduced by a much debated form of popular music transition -- that of the “drop”. Here, however, Low finds something fresh to do with a modern sound. Low’s version of the drop is far removed from popular notions of electronic dance music and grafted onto a doomed expanse that sounds like Hex...-era Earth.

Another single, “Lies,” is perhaps the most direct in its appropriation of current popular music. Sparhawk’s vocal melody is strongly evocative of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” which is itself an historically contested melody. That Sparhawk would cop a tune from a wildly popular song whose authenticity is in dispute, for a song called “Lies” no less, is both humorous and works to further link Low to the current musical landscape.

The three tracks that form the album’s middle are collectively its sweet spot. “No End,” straight from the guitar pop-rock template and thus mysteriously unutilized as a single, precedes “Into You", in which Parker’s voice cascades all around, multiplied into a chorus for a song about shared intimacy of two individuals. The final song of this trilogy, “What Part of Me” is the one that could be most easily read as a statement on a long-time marriage. Sparhawk sings the lead, describing a closeness that is by turns comforting and terrifying.

Overall, the lyrics of Ones and Sixes are less captivating than the voices that sing them. Too many songs coast on repeated phrases and cadences that don’t vary enough to create a cumulative effect reached by Low’s most arresting work. And “Landslide", which at ten minutes in length promises to be a statement of a song, features some interesting sound effects but mostly drags. The words of “DJ", the last song on the album, are a good conversation starter on the subjects of individual versus institution, conviction versus tradition, and other conflicts common to the Low discography.

Ones and Sixes is the sound of Low operating in a different gear. It would be inaccurate to say the band have caught up to the current state of pop/rock music, in part because there is little consensus therein. And whatever spheres the band are courting or passing through with this album, the long race has already revealed Sparhawk, Parker, and company to be among the most unassuming and unrivaled pacesetters of all.

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image