The Invisible Way

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.

Slowdive, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Rust Is Just Right and Slowdive have a bit of a shared history, as our first story was an article discussing their surprise reunion earlier this year.  At the time, we were unsure whether the reunification was a one-off deal, but luckily the band would not only launch a tour, but they would stop by our corner of the world here in Oregon.  Considering we were too young to catch them during their initial heyday, we jumped at the opportunity to see the shoegaze legends live.  As they proved Wednesday night, The Jesus And Mary Chain may have created the genre and My Bloody Valentine created its masterpiece, it was Slowdive that perfected the craft.

Slowdive up in lights.

Slowdive up in lights.

Just seeing the headliners would have been enough of a treat, but we were blessed with the additional bonus of Low opening up the show.  Low is definitely a band worthy of its own headlining tour (though they may not be playing in venues as large as the Crystal), but when given an invitation from icons like Slowdive, you take that gig in a heartbeat.  As such, we tried to get in as close to the start of the show as possible, and despite a slight delay at the Will Call office due to some confusion with the customers in front of us, we were able to arrive as their first song faded and “Plastic Cup” began.  This started a run of songs from their overlooked recent album The Invisible Way that the crowd ate up, leading me to suspect that there may have been more than a few people who bought tickets to the show on the strength of the opener alone.  Low stuck with some of their heavier, more bombastic material, like “Monkey” and the sublime “Dinosaur Act”, which elicited cheers from the crowd as soon as the first hints of its melody drifted through the venue.  The band finished up a tight set to thunderous applause, leaving the crowd wanting more, even though we were eagerly anticipating the headliners.

The interstitial music coming over the PA featured some inspired choices like The Shins’ “Caring Is Creepy” and Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, which kept the audience in a suitably relaxed mood before the main act arrived.  But even though we were prepared for an evening of gorgeous, dreamy music, that didn’t stop us from providing a rapturous welcome to Slowdive as they walked onto the stage.  The band kicked the show off with some of their earliest songs, from the Slowdive EP, with the guitars swirling and Rachel Goswell’s and Neil Halstead’s vocals floating in and above the haze in a gorgeous, dreamlike state.  Though those components are the hallmarks of the Slowdive aesthetic, in the live setting you get a full appreciation for Simon Scott’s drums, which not only provided a necessary tether to the ethereal songs, but also provided some brilliant beats in and of themselves.  His contributions tend to go unnoticed on record, but they formed an integral part of the performance.

A glimpse of the psychedelic set

A glimpse of the psychedelic set

The early results were pleasing, but the band hit another level with “Catch the Breeze” from Just For A Day, with an exhilarating climax propelled by Scott’s thunderous drums enhanced by a delirious strobe effect, in perhaps the most effective use of the trick I’ve ever seen.  It was this moment that confirmed that as wonderful as their albums are, it’s no comparison to Slowdive’s live show.  Highlights included favorites from their classic Souvlaki like “Machine Gun” and “Alison”, which strangely enough were the only songs introduced by the band even though they rank as among the most recognizable.  With all the pure noise generated from the several guitars over the course of most of the set, it made the delicate and sublime “Dagger” stand out even more, as all the reverbs, delays, wahs, filters, and phasers were stripped away for the mournful ballad, backed by a light setup that focused on various bulbs that enhanced the somber overtones of the song.  Considering the respectful silence that greeted the song, I may have been a bit too excited in unleashing a “whoo” as soon as I heard its opening chords, but dammit I was happy to hear one of my favorite songs played live for the first time.

Setlist from an amazing show.

Setlist from an amazing show.

It was an amazing experience from beginning-to-end, and hopefully it inspires the group to continue–whether it be with new music, re-releasing out-of-print albums, remastering their old material (while we’re generally not in favor of the “loudness wars”, the Slowdive back-catalog would benefit greatly from a volume-boost), or just launching more tours.  Because as I said after the show, Slowdive live was even more beautiful than I imagined.