Album Review: Low — Ones and Sixes

low album cover

Twenty-one years is a long time to be in a band. It’s quite a long time to be married. It’s a really, unbelievably long time to be married to someone in your band.

Such is the case with Low’s Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker, whose eleventh album, Ones and Sixes, is out today. Alan’s and Mimi’s voices intertwine beautifully, which has rightly garned them comparisons to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. The combination has such rare power, even in the midst of an emotional song, that they always nonetheless come across as more harmonious than loud, discordant cowpunk couples who don’t ever come close to sounding this good together. Hopefully their domestic arrangement is as harmonious as their voices, but judging from the lyrics of “What Part Of Me” (What part of me do you not know? / What part of me do you not own?), that might not be the case. Mimi’s voice is clear and chime-like on its own, but Alan brings out the best in her vocals. Even so, the listener is in for a rough emotional ride.

Alan Sparkhawk said about the album:

In our 20+ years of writing songs, I’ve learned that no matter how escapist, divergent, or even transcendent the creative process feels, the result is more beholden to what is going on at the moment. It’s hard to admit that one is so influenced by what is in front of us. Doesn’t it come from something magical and far away? No, it comes from here. It comes from now. I’m not going to tell you what this record is about because I have too much respect for that moment when you come to know it for yourself.

I will, however, tell you about how we made it. BJ contacted us a few years ago and invited us out to the studio where he works with Justin, Lizzo, and other artists. The studio is close to our home in Duluth, so it seemed tempting. Months later, I worked with BJ, producing the recent record by Trampled by Turtles. We got along and seemed to have similar curiosity about the possibilities for Low, so time was booked and songs finished. We tracked under the soft glow of laser discs playing lost classics like Point Break and Speed. Glenn Kotche from Wilco was there one day working on another record, so we had him in to play hand-percussion on a couple songs. Working 2 or 3 days at a time, leaving it with BJ, then back again for more, we don’t have the time or money to second-guess or pick from a pool of possibilities. This is the whole thought – the untamed truth. This is now. This is everything.

Low has evolved and developed from their slow, quiet, sometimes ploddy, ambient, low-fi early days and stretch in several interesting directions here. There are more effects, experimental sounds, and some of the songs (“Kid in the Corner,” “Landslide”) are uncharacteristically loud. This is not an album to kick back and relax to, because there’s far too much going on to let a listener settle in. “Landslide” starts off with promising vocals but is ultimately too long and distorted in the last third of the song, like something from a Reznor soundtrack.

“No Comprende” is a surprising stand out track with relentless bass and wonderful interplay of voices. Arrangements like those on “Into You,” the sweet “No End,” and the delicate “Spanish Translation” border on the best ’90s dreamcore, while evoking the bleak coldness of a Minnesota winter. The airiness conjured by Mimi in particular gets slightly heavy in the icy atmosphere. Even with added instruments and effects, there remains a sparseness about the album along the lines of the Breeders’ Pod, produced by Steve Albini, who also produced Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire in 2001. Albini did not produce this album, but he is still here in spirit.

The overall feeling is that of dreaminess punctuated by unsettled, snarling static. That quietness is the misleading calm right before a personal upheaval or a complete nervous breakdown.

Low UK Tour Dates

07 October Cathedral, Manchester

08 October Art School, Glasgow

10 October Roundhouse, London

Tour dates for North America and Europe can be found here.

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