Low - Ones and Sixes - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Low - Ones and Sixes

by Steve Rhodes Rating:7 Release Date:2015-09-11

2013's The Invisible Way should have been the album that launched Low into the mainstream. On the back of high-profile patronage from Robert Plant and finally, a superb TV appearance on Later... With Jools Holland, they produced an album that, while maintaining their beautiful, hushed, slow-tempo melodies, trimmed the bleakness and tension of past releases.

Though it was a wonderful record that took a few listens to really appreciate, it seemed to be a calculated risk that didn't quite provide the breakthrough that Low deserved from their consistently excellent and extensive back-catalogue. Well Plan B seems to have well and truly expunged on their latest offering, Ones and Sixes, with darkness welcomed back with open arms. However, Low have continued to evolve with a further embrace of technology and instrumentation, that adds a veneer of uniqueness that sets Ones And Sixes out from previous efforts, even if the end result seems a little haphazard and confused.

Though electronics have been making subtle appearances on recent releases, opener 'Gentle' gives birth to Low's discovery of a full-on drum machine. Accompanying a shrilled guitar and high-pitched keys, squelchy, distorted electronic drums lead the way, before Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's dual, somewhat desolate, vocals appear. A sparse, surprising opener, full of bleak overtones “It doesn't have to end this way, but this is where we stay”, like John Foxx meets Homogenic-era Bjork. It is still unmistakenly Low especially when Alan's guitar eventually makes an entrance, but an interesting and unexpected turn.

'No Comprende' is perhaps a gentler progression with neatly chugging, electronically-surpressed guitars initially backing Alan's lead vocal, eventually opening out as the volume increases and Alan's spacious guitar appears, being played more forceful than ever. Mimi's repetitive “house is on fire” is sung in an almost-delirious dream state, with each guitar note plucked so strongly to the point of finger-detachment. The Mimi-lead 'Congregation' likewise is a subtle departure, with a 'popping', almost-upbeat drum machine at odds with the deeply melancholic backing, with Alan's arpeggioed and strummed guitar guiding the song alongside a minor-key Talk Talk piano.

Where Low allow electronics to dominate it leads to somewhat mixed results. 'The Innocents' with its nods to 90s-00s Depeche Mode beats seems dated but is saved by Mimi's glorious, descending vocal in the chorus “all you innocents, make a run for it, all you innocents, might be down for it” and a deeply-melodious close that escapes the surpressing production. 'Into You', with its FKA Twigs/Zola Jesus percussion, wobbly samples and delicately-treated guitar lacks a clear, uncluttered sound the album is crying out for. Even Mimi's normally crystal-clear vocal seems swamped by being double-tracked. Only when a guitar joins in does the song contain any feeling other than cold inertia. Like a number of tracks it would be better if it was given a little more air and allowed the musical dynamics flow rather than being selectively compressed.

With electronica adding to the dark tone of the album it's good that there's room for some cheerier tracks. 'What Part Of Me' is Low does pop, an upbeat, simple, headbopping almost-bubblegum number. Still finding a way to fuzz the guitar and overly-distort the bass the track has a potential irritation in the way Mimi doubles Alan's vocal lines, but it isn't too troubling, with the melody and optimism winning out. 'No End' improves on this, akin to The Beach Boys and Teenage Fanclub's 'What You Do To Me', dominated by Alan's beautiful descending vocal and shimmering guitar lines. With Mimi's harmonising vocal providing the perfect backing, it is a neat 3 minute pop song.

Despite all the postitives of the new directions Low have taken with this album, the niggling doubt that prevails throughout is the confused, occasionally suffocating production and over-compression, that seems to prevent them from being their usual, natural, affecting selves. Thankfully the last three tracks though finally allow the band to unleash the shackles. Closer 'DJ' is a touching, beautiful number, with the guitars more chiming and subject to a neat tremelo compression effect, strong lyrics “you want religion, you want assurance, a resurrection, some kind of purpose” and a perfect use of samples at the end to back Mimi's beautifully decaying vocal. 'Landslide' is a funeral march, like a busy Codeine, in a similar vein to 'Majesty/Magic' and the Happy Birthday refrain from 'On My Own' on their previous releases. A mantric and brooding number, that takes an about-turn by launching into a Like Herod loudness dynamic as the song develops. The best part is left to the mid-to-end section, a truly magical piece of work, where the track again slows, the atmosphere becomes expansive and Mimi's deeper vocal is joined by fractious, but melodic guitar and a sublime, buried higher-pitched vocal. All of which adds texture and a counterpoint to the foreboding ending as the sound increases in tension and tone.

It's 'Lies' though that's the true star of the show. Real drums, a terrific lead vocal from Alan and the perfect backing from Mimi, electronics that shine rather than swamp and a dark subject matter than is sung so sweetly and unforced “when they found you on the edge of the road, you had a pistol underneath your coat”. A soaring number full of emotion and optimism, that sums up the best of Low, how to make potentially bleak music affect you deeply but make you smile.

An occasional muddle of an album, beset by what seems like different producers fighting over getting their 'work' onto canvas no matter what. Rejecting the simplicity, but effectiveness of predecessor The Invisible Way may have been a mistake, ending with a harsher, less melodic tone overall, but there is still plenty of positivity with the output of Ones and Sixes and Low's evolution and delving into technology, with the last three tracks especially showing what can be done right when you radically change a strong template to 'fit in' with contemporary noises.

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