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Review: Low Climb Ever Higher on ‘Ones and Sixes’

LOW Band Photo
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Label: Sub Pop

It’s fairly common knowledge that tortoises owe their epic lifespans, hundreds of years in some cases, to their excruciatingly slow metabolism. The same holds true for other large, slow beasts, like whales, elephants, and Duluth, Minnesota’s pioneering slowcore purveyors, Low. Alan Sparhawk and his romantic and musical partner Mimi Parker’s eleventh record in a little over two decades, Ones and Sixes, might be the product of a similar phenomenon: “I can’t explain / The slowing of my brain / The underlying vein / That flows right into you,” says the latter, who shares vocal duties with her husband, on the oh-so-slow “Into You,” a wooden block tap-tapping almost inaudibly under keyboard chords that bleed into each other like those lyrical fluids.

Go slow, homie has been the name of the band’s mostly unchanged game since 1994’s I Could Live in Hope, a cavernous album of soft-spoken monosyllabic song titles and dangling guitar riffs; through their 2001 breakthrough, the somewhat denser Things We Lost in the Fire; and 2011’s C’mon, when Low pulled me into their seemingly eternal orbit upon catching its twinkling opener “Try to Sleep” on Minnesota’s preeminent indie station, 89.3 The Current. “In some ways it’s like every recording we’ve ever done,” Parker told Stereogum of making their latest record. “It takes a while to get to the point where it’s a cohesive thing and it fits together and it’s become something.”

It’s testament to the durability of their musical metabolism that they’ve kept their heads just above catatonic waters through a range of producers, including Dave Fridmann (Animal Collective, Tame Impala) and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy; on Ones and Sixes, however, Sparhawk and Parker kept things closer to home with one of the Midwest’s best-beloved producers. BJ Burton, who has also handled with finessed understatement albums like this year’s Dark Bird Is Home by Tallest Man on Earth and Megafaun’s 2011 self-titled LP, produced, mixed, engineered, and mastered the album at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin.

Ironically — or perhaps they’re more comfortable in such familiar quarters — the two, along with bassist Steve Garrington, seem more comfortable pushing the speed limit. On “Kid in a Corner,” Sparhawk revs his guitar with the intense repetition of a chainsaw, like feet scuffing gravel as they take off too fast, even as he and Parker languidly unfurl the same phrase over and over again (as they always have). “Why can’t you go any faster?” they taunt. “Can’t you hit any harder?” Earlier in the album, from its first listen, in fact (“No Comprende”), he strikes again with staccato riffs, like a codeine-drenched but still libelous variation on Britt Daniel’s fretwork all over Spoon‘s especially minimal masterpiece, 2001’s Girls Can Tell. 

Ones and Sixes often flares with that kind of tension musically and lyrically: “Congregation” marches to a drum machine constantly skipping and then righting itself, falling on wrought-iron piano bars as Parker moans about death and jail; but “Lies” features perhaps the most complex architecture of the bunch, opening with a familial backstory tracing back thirty years and somewhat knocking off aphorisms like lazy afternoon fly balls (“Time is keeping score,” “the blind leading the blind,” sweeping things underneath rugs, etc.). Sparhawk tentatively hits highs in Wayne Coyne territory, imbuing the canyon-filling swirls of background synths and simple, sad, jangly riff with echoes of The Soft Bulletin.

“Spanish Translation,” on the other hand, is Low-core and lovely: guitar starbursts bloom across the vast, beatless expanse as Parker’s distant coos halo her companion’s words about the elegance of a good translation. And that’s the note Ones and Sixes ends on: Album closer “DJ” sticks out on paper but unfurls patiently, so patiently, like someone who takes their time getting to the end of an argument they already know they’ve won. “I ain’t your DJ,” sing the couple. “You’ve got to shake that.”