slowcore

Low, Live at the Doug Fir

Before we went on our holiday break, we were fortunate enough to catch one of our longtime favorites at Portland’s best venue, when Low came to town to play the Doug Fir basement.  It is always a treat to see Low play a show, but we were especially eager to witness one of the best albums of the year performed live.  The band indulged us by performing a setlist that heavily featured their latest album, Ones and Sixes, and we are glad to report that the new material sounds just as great live as it does on record.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

The show started off with the one-two punch of the glitchy “Gentle” and the deliberate “No Comprende” that kick off their latest release, which segued nicely into the menacing and electric “Monkey” from The Great Destroyer.  While it seems that most critics had forgotten about Low’s previous album, it was nice to see that the band had not.  The main set included a run of The Invisible Way tracks that showed off many of the band’s best assets, from Mimi Parker’s gorgeous vocals on “Holy Ghost” to the distorted dissonance of Alan Sparhawk’s fiery guitar on “On My Own” to the group’s sense of irony and humor in “Plastic Cup” (with Steve Garrington ably shuffling between bass and keys throughout, a key if underrated part of the band’s sound).

The group held off from any stage banter for most of the night, before Alan praised the city near the end of the show.  At one point, the crowd began to clap when only the slightest shuffle could be heard from Mimi’s drums, and those close enough to the stage could hear her remark to Alan that “they don’t even know what song it is yet”, but on the whole the band let their music speak for itself.  The main set ended with the epic “Landslide”, just as we had predicted from our review of the album, and it was just as amazing as we had hoped.  Though the encore did not end up including a couple of our old favorites, many in the crowd were ecstatic to hear “Words” from their early album I Could Live In Hope, while “Murderer” from Drums and Guns proved to be a perfect closer.

A colorful view of the band

A colorful view of the band

Unfortunately, we missed nearly all of opener Andy Shauf’s set, due to Portland’s complete stupidity when it comes to creating a reasonable parking system.  It is difficult enough parking on the East Side on a Friday night, but with many spots blocked off for the shooting of the television show Grimm, it made it impossible to find a spot anywhere near the venue.  However, from the one song I heard, it seems that Shauf’s spare and haunting sound was a good fit for the main act.

Review: Low – Ones and Sixes

What Low has accomplished over the course of their two-decade-plus career is truly astonishing.  Not only have they never come close to releasing a mediocre album, but they still sound as vibrant as ever, with their creative spark still burning bright.  Though as pioneers of the “slowcore” genre they are known for their minimalist tendencies, Low still is finding new sounds to explore and ideas to develop, which makes Ones and Sixes an excellent addition to their brilliant discography.

Ones and Sixes is an excellent summation of the different paths the band has pursued since the release of Things We Lost In The Fire.  The band alternates between the warmer milieu of their recent work (C’mon and The Invisible Way) with a dip back into the icier moods of albums like Drums and Guns. The influence of that often-overlooked album really shines through with the incorporation of electronic drums on tracks like “Congregation” and “Gentle”, the latter of which evokes a more downbeat version of With Teeth-era Nine Inch Nails.

These dark, mysterious tracks fit perfectly alongside soaring guitar-based ballads, like the dazzling “Lies”, which may have one of the most gorgeous climaxes that the band has ever recorded.  This sublime moment is immediately followed by the epic “Landslide”, which is possibly Low’s heaviest work to date.  With its heavy distortion and extended dissonant outro, it is sure to be a highlight of the group’s upcoming live show.

There are other intriguing subtle production touches on Ones and Sixes, most notably the use of some natural distortion in the recording and mixing process that gives a rawer feel to certain moments, providing a nice contrast to the otherwise pristine tone found throughout the record.  In addition to their inspired instrumental experimentation, Low once again makes great use of the harmonies of the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, with each also given their own time to shine.  Their hauntingly alluring vocals are perfect complements to the exquisitely constructed melodies, and that combination together should be more than enough to draw in new listeners.  Of course, this should come as no surprise to old fans, since Low has been consistently excellent for a number of years, but they will certainly be pleased to hear that the band has created an excellent capstone for their fine work of the past decade.

Random note: I have not seen an explanation of the title, but my guess is that “Ones and Sixes” is a reference to dice, and the minimum/maximum that one can get; therefore, the record might be seen as an exploration of highs and lows.  Just a theory.

Covered: “Africa”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

No one should have to listen to Toto’s “Africa” for any reason whatsoever in the year of 2015, so I apologize for the embedded video above.  It is a song that exists purely as a punchline, whether it be from digs by amateurs like you or in the hands of professionals like Patton Oswalt.  The only reason why anyone from my generation would have anything besides ill will for the song is due to a misplaced sense of nostalgia, from the time when you would catch a snippet of the chorus for one of those 80’s compilation discs on those commercials they would run on a daily basis.  Which makes sense, because if you cut the song down to about three seconds, it is tolerable.

I would not bring the song up if it were not for the release of Low’s brilliant new album Ones and Sixes last week (of which you should expect a review in the near future).  However, this provides the opportunity to bring up the time that Low covered “Africa” for the AV Club’s Undercover series.  As mentioned in the video, the song was not really the band’s choice, but that did not stop them from doing an admirable job in creating a memorable cover.  True to their style, the band does an elegant, mournful take on the original, giving the song far more weight than otherwise necessary; were it not for the recognizable chorus or the unusual organ tone in the keyboard, it would seem to be a natural fit in the band’s traditional setlist.  Their spare version provides a nice contrast with the bombast of the original, while also emphasizing the strength of the melody.

I also learned that there are a lot of people out on the internet that take Toto VERY SERIOUSLY, as evidenced by many of the exasperated YouTube comments.  I suggest that instead of getting worked up in a rage because someone did not apparently muster enough respect that the great musicians of Toto apparently deserve, that they sit back and relax by listening to one of Low’s slowcore masterpieces, like Things We Lost In The Fire.  Maybe then they could understand the full range of what “musicianship” entails.