Friday, 16 December 2011

Live review: Low, The Old Market, Hove 3.12.11

Last time Minnesota trio Low were in Brighton they played St George’s church, where their songs reverberated through the rows of pews and Alan Sparhawk sang his dark hymns from beneath an enormous suspended golden crucifix; it swung gently overhead while he swayed gently below, apparently a fair way to drunk and the target of irritated mutterings from his wife behind her drumkit. The Old Market tonight can’t really compete with that kind of spectacle but this big beamed barn of a venue does benefit from remarkably clear sound, a seemingly sober Sparhawk and - not being seated and this being Low - the satisfying dynamics of a capacity crowd which is partisan, enthralled and not out to squash anyone. You get reverential communal rocking rather than elbows and lager in your face.

Few bands would chose to open with a long, slow, relatively new song but Low have their principles; ‘Nothing But Heart’ is eight minutes-plus of stately minimalism and blistered guitar whose lyrics consist pretty much entirely of Sparhawk singing ‘I am nothing but heart’ over and over and over, the crescendos and diminuendos of bass, guitar and drums keeping up an ominous pulse that throbs and roils below. And just as the immutability of the words threatens to tip the song over into dullness the sense of that small phrase is morphed into something other by the transformative effect of repetition; from a straightforward declaration to a mantra, a charm, an invocation, a blessing, a plea, a threat, a lament… eight minutes suddenly seems ridiculously brief, we need days of this stuff. The myriad ways of being “nothing but heart” hang over the audience, evoke images of all-embracing love as well as those of a twitching bloody mess on a surgeon’s tray. It’s quite a start, quite a song.

Halfway through their set, Alan looks out at the packed hall and praises the people right in the middle; says he couldn’t be there: “I get real nervous unless I can see the edge of nothing”. That’s Low for you: comforted by proximity to the void, disconcerted by crowds. Drawn to the darkness beyond the light, to the implicit threat contained within words of love, to the horror that lies at the outer edges of faith.

There’s something blood-curdling about being feet away from a man offering up his body as a weapon of death and destruction in the service of his god, as Sparhawk does on ‘Murderer’. The way his voice trips over the edge of the abyss on “Cos I’m CRUEL” is totally chilling. Yes, yes, it’s a song, a role, but y’know, it’s funny cos it’s true. I don’t know any other band who could write a song like it, could describe their complicated relationship with God as articulately as Low.

But Low is not just Alan and his slow-burning aches: there are times when Mimi’s voice is the most beautiful thing in this dark and endless universe. (Halfway through ‘Just Like Christmas’ is one of those times. The crowd is rapt, the air still, Mimi’s honeyed cadences ringing out as if Christmas Day itself hung on the continuation of her song; we’re all half expecting to leave the venue to find she’s conjured up a freshly-fallen carpet of snow.)

Ah, she’s not recognised as the goddess she should be, the centrepiece of this quietly raging band. She stands midstage behind her simple kit, brushes in one hand, fluffy drumstick in the other, beating out Low’s steady but compelling heartbeat. And her voice is quite, quite gorgeous. More gorgeous than you’d expect of something most often pitched as harmonic foil above or below husband Alan’s grainier lead vocals, but there she is on the cover of this year’s album C’mon, Low’s 9th LP: the everso-slightly grumpy but wholly magnificent queen of slowcore. “I love you!” a punter shouts. “You don’t even know me” she retorts. And when Alan apes one of her mumbled comments, she flashes him a ferocious look and an (unfortunately inaudible) put-down.

Low wouldn’t be Low without those lustrous male-female harmonies. It’s fairly remarkable that whether Alan or – increasingly - Mimi take the lead it’s all still primarily Low; this is an Aeolian harp of a band, whichever way you strike the collective instrument it makes a pleasing and familiar sound. Its component parts chime. Low don’t go in for wild innovation or for genre-hopping, there’re no disco numbers or funky interludes, no alarms and no surprises. Dynamics, tone, harmony, two or three lines of lyrics: the alchemy of performance makes something extraordinarily magnificent from such simplicity. Low storm the place.

Originally posted on thegirlsare

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