The latest evidence of the ubiquity of Alan Sparhawk: Not only did his band Low gain the most votes in PDD’s poll to determine the best local album of 2015 for its release Ones and Sixes, Sparhawk also produced the Social Disaster album Dark Side of the Roller Rink, which finished a close second in the voting.
But that’s kind of what we expect from the icon of Duluth’s music scene.
For Low’s 11th studio album — its fourth on the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records label — the band teamed with producer BJ Burton and recorded at April Base Studios in Eau Claire. As usual, Sparhawk handles the guitar work and shares vocals with his wife, drummer Mimi Parker. It’s their third album with bassist Steve Garrington.
Ones and Sixes is perhaps the band’s most spiritual-sounding music yet, though not in a denominational sort of way. The songs are filled with soul and strain. Like every Low album, critics have labeled it a departure, while at the same time noting it’s unmistakably Low. Perhaps therein lies the soul and strain. When music critics have a tough time putting a finger on it, it’s usually a great thing that’s happening in the headphones.
“This is consuming, absorbing music, mixed to kick sounds through your skull, pulsing beats from left to right and then blowing the whole thing wide open with a massive bass drop,” Andrea Swensson wrote for the Current. “Moments later, you’ll be left hanging on the sound of a single guitar note, wondering which underworld the band will lead you into next. Even the noisier tracks on Ones and Sixes can be traced back to Sparhawk’s electric guitar, which alternates between clean tones and cacophony. Parker’s drums echo and boom like they’re being played in Lake Superior’s ice caves. Garrington pounds out a persistent, percussive bass. On dynamic songs like “Gentle” and “Landslide,” you can’t help but marvel: How are they even doing this?”
Corbin Reiff sums it up thusly for Pitchfork:
“Most bands don’t have either the stamina or the creative drive to make it up to and past the 20-year mark. The ones that do rarely find new things to say. As its enters its third decade making music, Low has reached a comfortable but engaging stride creating music that consistently seems to be at odds with itself. Ones and Sixes is all at once beautiful, ugly, tense, warm, inviting and repellent. It’s an emotional and sonic juggling act where even the slightest bum-note would draw attention to itself. As always with Low, the beauty is all about the details.”
Ones and Sixes took 34 percent of the vote in the final four-way showdown for the Perfect Album of 2015 award. Honorable mentions go to Social Disaster’s Dark Side of the Roller Rink (31 percent), Charlie Parr’s Stumpjumper (19 percent) and Mary Bue’s Holy Bones (16 percent).
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