Low Ones and Sixes

[Sub Pop; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: dirge, pop, ballad, rock, Low
Others: Rivulets, Haley Bonar, Mark Kozelek

“Feel-bad days can end. Anyone can understand, anyone can ruin the plan.”
– GoGoGo Airheart, “Love The Depression”

Clarion calls of all sorts dissolve at the lip of the void faster and faster everyday. Enthusiasts could easily be made to feel like turniphead Ostriches. But as the benevolent wonderopolis.org would gently, exhaustively like to point out, Ostriches aren’t burying their heads, but turning their eggs with their beaks. However much the world (often glimpsed through screens and filters) fills up our heads to a throbbing swell, we are still no bigger than what we nurture and what nurtures us. Low issue cries of mourning and cries of spent urgency, their music always embodying that press — that meeting of impending doom with refined resignation. Like Beach House, Low have their melancholy well bolstered against the wiley ravages of sunny days and endorphins. Despite their dour fixations, there is a careworn aesthetic warmth to what they’ve built, and their 11th record reassuringly radiates with this characteristic.

“Decay” is my guess for the most used word in reviews for Ones and Sixes. It’s the aspect that most sets the album apart from their previous work (their version of “Will The Night” opening the 1997 Songs for a Dead Pilot EP forecasts this a bit). There’s a pervasive use of fuzzy, sharp textural angles and incidental-sounding background drone. Songs are grimed up to a deteriorating extent, juxtaposing dramatically with the pitch-perfect, clear-as-a-bell sustained vocal melodies. It sounds great if you’re especially partial to distortion (aye!), but the material is so obviously strong that it’d be a shame if this quality took budding Low fans out of the music. That’s not to say the dirt isn’t well integrated, it’s just that it maybe reinforces the more obvious aspects of living on the cusp of a worldwide dystopia.

Low is still a great relief to have around, despite some questionable MOR moves on the last few records. They haven’t “returned to form” here, as a lot of the less minimal and mid-tempo rock-friendly touches of their post-Secret Name material remains. But their song selection hasn’t been this stellar since Trust way back in 2002. It’s brimming with potential new favorites, many of which stole the show I’d attended in Providence this past spring. While trying to pin down the setlist, I was convinced “Landslide” (it can’t be named that!) was a hidden gem from the Things We Lost era or thereabouts. Finding it here was a great thrill, even if that chuggy part from 2:00-3:00 comes off a bit like 90s alt rock wankery. However, the rest of the song is a lost slowcore dream come true, good medicine for those of us who’re hopelessly preferential of their earlier sound.

Style is so huge. I am really in awe of it. But when a unit as solid as Low take to work, there is a tendency to want to disavow oneself from it entirely. They’re one of those bands that doesn’t really need style, embracing it in only the most pragmatic of ways (albums need covers, certain body types are flattered by certain garments — even nondescript needs a curatorial sense). Their opaque sincerity is only a flaccid “style” if you don’t let yourself engage with it. And while one may have tempered expectations, this album can sneak up on you. Even when you’re distracted, trying to gauge the tone of somebody’s seemingly batshit FB post, these songs swim up to the foreground and flood your senses. You’ll be puttering around, carving meerschaum pipes in your workshop, and “Spanish Translation” will have you thinking this is freaking epic! and you’ll check the song and see it took ‘em less than four minutes to get you to that conclusion. Triumphant is the word. Low still have so much Low to give us!

Both “Lies” and “No End” are pretty concise pop songs, resembling recent attempts at more templated chorus-hooking, but are rendered less cloying with all that wetwork. But if there were a breakout on here, it’d have to be the stalled-out Cars pulser, “Kid in the Corner.” Like “No Comprende” before it, there are snatches of narrative regarding the immigration issue. What their stance is is beyond me, but I’m unsure enough of my own that I can see why Low might be taking an impressionistic approach (besides the fact that it’s just the way they do). Regardless of what it may mean lyrically, “Kid in the Corner” is a uniquely uplifting bounce-along with lithe, glassy dual vox from Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. It feels both anomalous and canon, not unlike this classic guest spot from them.

Mimi, as with Georgia/Ira in Yo La Tengo, is ever the more strident and restrained vocal lead, so particular mention must be made of “Into You.” Elegantly harmonizing with herself, Parker patiently meditates on her roots and how their sturdy undeniability quietly humbles. It’s a wonder akin to live staple “Laser Beam” (and perhaps would be worth hearing in a similarly unadorned fashion). Its placement is particularly keen as a midpoint palate cleanser, followed by the charmingly simple, infectious “What Part of Me.” However, it should be noted that this isn’t really an album-as-journey (nor a Journey album), but a strikingly consistent (in terms of songwriting quality and gritty surfaces) presentation of fresh Low material.

There’s so much sweet in the bitter here that one might be inclined to think that this is music anyone could get into. But these are songs for Low fans. For those of us who don’t run screaming from uncertainty and dread. For those of us who look those things in the eye. Who live with them. And with a sad song for a prayer, embrace ‘em wholeheartedly.

Links: Low - Sub Pop

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