If the relative warmth and hopefulness of 2011's C'mon and 2013's The Invisible Way had you wondering if Low were starting to get happy on us after all these years, don't fret -- 2015's Ones and Sixes shows that anxiety and grief are still the dominant emotions in Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's world. While Low's two previous albums boasted production and instrumental accompaniment that brought out an emotional generosity that was a real change from the cool isolation of their best-known work, for Ones and Sixes the group and producer BJ Burton have opted for a stark and chilly sound, dominated by electronic pulsebeats and waves of polished noise that give the songs an unforgiving, alien backdrop. Despite the brushed aluminum sound of much of the album, one of the greatest strengths of Low's work for Sub Pop has been the beauty of Sparhawk and Parker's vocals, with their harmonies sounding even stronger with the passage of time, and that's just as true on Ones and Sixes, as the humanity of their voices gives this music a hint of body heat and warm breath. While that enlivens some tracks like "What Part of Me," the contrast makes the Spartan production sound all the more frigid on "Congregation," "The Innocents," and "Kid in the Corner," and even though the group's guitars and keyboards are still part of the arrangements, ultimately they're playing second fiddle to the electronics. Ones and Sixes is a brave effort that stands apart from much of Low's work, and there are certainly glimpses of their dour beauty on these 12 songs, but in the final analysis this is an album that fails more often than it triumphs.
Ones and Sixes
(Digital Download - Sub Pop #098787114461)
Review by Mark Deming