“Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise”.
— Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music
Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have consistently put the lie to Attali’s assertion and this mini-album recorded with the Dirty Three only provides more evidence that while Low’s recordings may be subdued, unobtrusive, and often hushed, the emotive volume is always turned up high.
Under the auspices of Konkurrent’s “In the Fishtank” series, Low was approached to record a half-hour’s worth of material over two days whilst in Amsterdam for November 1999’s Crossing Border festival. Also appearing at the festival were the Dirty Three, with whom Low had toured and released a split CD single in 1997. Consequently, Sparhawk and Parker invited the Australian trio to collaborate on the Fishtank recordings and six tracks were committed to tape.
Most of the songs blend the fragile, mesmerizingly slow melodies of Low with the string-rooted melancholy of the Dirty Three so seamlessly that at times it’s hard to say where one band ends and the other begins. “Invitation Day” is outstanding in that regard as Warren Ellis’ sorrowful violin joins in, weaving around the delicate, slow-motion harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker, but the fusion of creative identities is especially compelling on the gospel-tinged folk of “Lordy”, the most uptempo — although not the most uplifting — number on the album. Here, the arrangement is expanded as Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals and Ellis’ violin are supplemented with banjo, slide guitar, and driving percussion, all of which feed the track’s mounting tension.
The unhurried “Cody”, on the other hand, is perhaps more identifiable as a Dirty Three track in that Ellis’ mournful playing takes center stage, accompanied by a sparse drum pattern and ponderous bass.
The highlight of this release is a remarkable, nearly 10-minute rendition of “Down by the River”. So many of Neil Young’s songs seem to call for a Low cover and this one is a minor masterpiece, capturing the darkness of the original while magnifying and intensifying the fragility that underlies Young’s best work. Beginning with the faintest fragmented noises — brushed drums, a rumbling of bass, and a stirring of guitar — everything coalesces beautifully with the arrival of Parker’s vocals at the six-minute mark and the song fully declares its identity.
Low may indeed dwell in “the absence of noise” — as In the Fishtank reiterates — but as the Kings of Convenience have said, “quiet is the new loud”.