Low, Paul Thomas Saunders

Keiran Goddard 17/11/2010

The Contrarian ideal is dead. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, God and the Author, are, however, alive and well; don't believe the hype.

There is very little that is more boring, or ultimately less radical than the deliberate inversion of received wisdom. Taken to its extreme point, the Contrarian neuters debate and opposition, affirming the dominance of that which it opposes. It is rare indeed to see the Contrarian urge lift itself in to the realm of satire, the absurd, the surreal, or any other position that still packs enough counterpunch to matter. It is the refuge of the lazy, delinquent pseud, it is a boorish and habitual mark-misser:

'If Shakespeare was alive he would be writing Hollyoaks' - Shut up. Prat. No he wouldn't. And besides he is dead (see above)

Low are the exception. They are a band whose entire sound has been crafted in opposition to the Mid-American grunge movement that spawned them. Whenever an audience was inattentive, they played more quietly, daring the club crowds into a rare and provocative intimacy. And the volume was just the beginning, the music itself is bare and minimalist; letting notes hang, drop and die before the next is reluctantly
offered up. And the pace, the pace; funereal implies at least the plod of a pall bearer - Low move like a coffin being kicked up a mountain by a slightly disinterested monopod. Low are challenging in the best sense of the word; they make unbelievably beautiful, heartbreaking music. At their best, they make most other bands seem leaden-footed, simplistic and pompous. Tonight, they invert two truisms of popular music, repeatedly and to devastating effect- they dismantle the anthemic blueprint with Socratic deftness; they ask questions that most of my record collection simply cannot answer.

The male mosquito's buzz, or flight tone, is normally about 600 cycles per second, or 600-Hz. The female's tone is about 400-Hz. In music, he's roughly a D, and she's about a G. So the male brings his tone into phase with the female's to create a near-perfect duet. Together, the two tones create what musicians call an overtone — a third, fainter tone at 1200-Hz. Only then will the mosquitoes mate.-NGL

The male/female vocal harmony anchors Low; it is the essential, gravitational nexus of what makes them such a wonderful band. And why shouldn't it? The history of popular music bears testament to its power; Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris, Emmy Lou Harris and Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris and Bruce Springsteen, Emmy Lou Harris and Elvis Costello, Emmy Lou Harris and Neil Young, Emmy Lou Harris and Ryan Adams, Emmy Lou harris and Bright Eyes…

As well as not featuring Emmy Lou Harris, Low's harmony singing is also divergent in a number or other significant ways. Harmony singing in popular music is most often used to create a sense of upswing or emphasis, like an especially humane string section, lifting the song at various points; the female (usually higher) voice adds an additional tonal increment, coaxing the melody skyward. Harmony singing in country and folk music, on the other hand, is often used in a more dialectic way.

Either voice begs a question to which the remaining singer offers response. When the voices inevitably converge during the chorus we sense agreement at the heart of the argument; perhaps the d.i.v.o.r.c.e might never happen. In this latter sense, the aim (hegemonic issues aside) is to create a space in which both the male and female point of view can coexist, a technique which stands in opposition to the standard, one-directional monologue of the traditional love song. Tonight, Low provide a thorough and convincing dissection of these approaches. Throughout, Mimi Parker effortlessly beguiles the melody earthward, always resisting the allure of ascendant triumphalism.

The two voices hover nervously and anxiously in one another's space, offering notes of trepidation and caveat, wanting to support the other's decision but sensing total agreement might result in disaster. Minutes into the performance it feels like you are in the presence of an eerie dualism, always hearing both the bad idea and the ghosts of those who have perished at its hands. Just as a Tuvan throat singer shamanically produces two notes at once, the feeling of listening to Low is also unnerving; you are hearing two utterances from the same consciousness; one utterance contains doubt, truth and dread, the other a believer's stridence- they sit together with debilitating unease, it is beautiful. In this sense, Low attempt to approach a subject with verity, recognising that no matter how many other people are present, there is always more than one voice, recognising that voices derail and destabilise as much as they affirm and showing that, at its best, 'harmony' singing should seem like an ironic term.

' She marking them begins a wailing note and sings extemporally a woeful ditty; how love makes old men thrall and young men dote, how love is wise in folly, foolish-witty: Her heavy anthem still concludes in woe, and still the choir of echoes answers so' - Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis

'Anthemic' has shape shifted its way to new meaning- it is most often used slyly: BUYER BEWARE- this song may contain traces of bombast, the product was packaged in a factory not entirely devoid of pomposity. The shadow of Arcade Fire looms over the landscape, double-digit silhouettes of sweaty string players and superfluous floor toms. It is not their fault- they are at least shooting for big game (and occasionally making a clean hit)- but the resulting damage is there for all to see. The anthemic gesture seems empty and fruitless, an air-traffic controller robot- dancing hopeful right-angles at an incoming comet. The trouble is, despite the laughably grandiose death-knell, the anthem is a necessary tenet of popular music- for the sake of ambition alone it is necessary to reanimate its bloated corpse. And Low? well, they understand this and they also seem to understand how to solve the problem. The word 'anthem' has its roots in 'antiphon', meaning to sing in response, as a reaction or retaliation. The instrumental minimalism of Low, whispering paranoid through the venue does demand catharsis and reaction, anthemic retaliation is part of what they do. But to react to a whisper by shouting would seem cruel, instead they almost imperceptibly gain ground; the drum hits a little louder, the voices arc out a little surer, there are no other instruments to add to the response, just an increasing resolve to play what there is ever harder and braver. It works- when they kick, they
take the roof off; not through force but as an invitation to breath cleaner air.

Low are contrarian in the extreme, they always have been, but tonight the transformative power of their stance is vividly evident. Their music finds new, honest ways to move the people who listen to it, never offering the simple emotion, always inviting you instead to experience a 'state'- complete with ambiguity, nervousness and lingering psychological disquiet. They do not pretend to exist in a state of grace, but they negotiate the question gracefully, they step out onto wires and you hold your breath worrying they will fall. They don't, you exhale, feeling guilty at the ugly way in which your lungs have broken the silence.