Sunday, 23 November 2008

Low, Club Academy, Tuesday November 18

I had severe trepidations about going to see Low at Club Academy, a utilitarian, impersonal cafeteria by day, and by far the worst of the Academy venues.

Low’s music is pared down to the point where it almost feels as if you are intruding to listen to it, as it’s based around the softness of Mimi Parker’s voice and the invisible, unspoken kindedness between her and husband Alan Sparhawk. It cries out for closeness, calls for a straining to hear what’s not stated but implied. It needs an intimate setting with no distractions.

This was a Christmas tour though, and no ordinary Low gig. Usually, singer Sparhawk’s level of interaction with the crowd is pitched somewhere between stern and untalkative and downright taciturn. Now though, jolly in a Santa hat, he looks relaxed, and jokes with the crowd, whilst bathed in a warm green light that softens the edges around Low’s sparse, often difficult sound.

The classic three piece is joined by an extra percussionist, a ukulele player and strings. Low have, unexpectedly, become a pop band in between now and their last tour. They cover Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as giving a surprisingly successful rendition of Little Drummer Boy.

Low had always threatened to become a pop band, and more conventional rock album the Great Destroyer is well represented. The band jigs about, enlivening the minimal set up of rudimentary drums, bass and less-is-more guitar, and the static tableau of stillness their songs often evoke.

The expanded sound is effective on Shots & Ladders a dense, watery epic that sounds like you’re listening to it through some great muffler like the sea. The melodies are distorted as if they’re so fragile they had to be wrapped in cotton wool. It comes to you from some other dimension, like reality gradually breaking into a deep dream.

Going to a Low gig can be an intense experience; this is more light-hearted, but the songs still sound like vessels carrying the inner weights of the whole band. Even carefree moments such as Last Snowstorm of the Year (which is, despite the title, Low at their most summery and jingly) have a certain sadness lurking at the back. The sliding, chromatic melodies of seasonal new single Santa’s Coming Over give it an eeriness at odds with the cosy traditional image of Christmas, although If You Were Born Today, Blue Christmas and One Special Gift are gentle and comforting as any carol service. The horrible Coming of Jah, however, tips the early celebration over into absurdity, with its calypso hooks, cod reggae beat and Sparhawk’s accompanying hand movements .

Everything is redeemed, though, when Low close by building up into their apogee, Canada, a propulsive chant of joy.

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