Saturday, February 26

Of Low Flying Sheep Etc.


I have a fondness for landscapes, particularly if within the landscape one can see sheep. I like sheep and their wool, perhaps because my mum is a very keen knitter, and I grew up in a post-war British working class family where if it couldn’t be knitted you couldn’t have it. On the train to Sheffield on Thursday, when Dave from work and I were on our way to see Low at The Leadmill in Sheffield, we came across a landscape with sheep in it. Not outside in the world, because it was dark and we couldn’t see anything out of the window except reflections of inside. But inside the train, the lady who was pushing the food and drinks trolley up and down was wearing what Dave described as one of the most hideous items of clothing he had ever seen. It was a kind of fleecy jacket, and the bottom half of it all the way around was an embroidered landscape of a field with trees on the horizon and sheep in the field. Or almost in the field. Problems with perspective (or whatever the technical term is) caused many of them to appear as if they were flying, or hovering serenely several feet above the ground. The woolly coat of one of them was tartan, which was interesting. When I said I have a fondness for landscapes I meant to say I have a fondness for most landscapes. When I said I like sheep I meant I like real sheep in real fields.


The weatherman had said to beware of "significant accumulations" of snow, but Dave and I weren't going to let that put us off going up north to see Low, who are currently in the UK touring their wonderful "The Great Destroyer" record.
I really like The Leadmill. It always seems to have a cool, relaxed atmosphere. And the audience always seems to be there to listen to the music, which is
not something you can always say about Nottingham's Rescue Rooms, where often people seem to be there to see their friends and talk all through a band's set. Of course, I may just have been lucky with the shows I've seen at The Leadmill. I saw Sparklehorse play a year or so ago, and there were times during that show when a song would end, and there'd be an absolute awed silence of near religious intensity until someone remembered to clap, and thus set off a bout of thunderous applause. If someone plays music to be listened to, with words they wouldn’t mind you hearing and notes they would quite like you to notice the difference between, which perhaps is not always the case, it must be very rewarding when the audience so obviously is there to listen.

That was how it was with Low on Thursday. They're a trio, which is why there are three people in their photograph. Mimi Parker plays drums and sings, Zak Sally plays bass, and Alan Sparhawk plays guitar and sings. Mimi and Alan are married, and have two kids, one of whom I think is still a baby. I don’t know if this final bit of information is at all relevant. But when Mimi and Alan sing together you understand what the word 'harmony' means. It's pretty near perfect. Low are famous for being the great exponents of slow-fi, or sad-fi, or just very slow very quiet stuff, although the new record has them breaking into new territory and turning up the amps and introducing some louder (produced by Dave Fridmann who does wonderful things with The Flaming Lips) sumptuous edge into things. But the quiet is still there, and their live show juxtaposes moments of magical beauty and almost whispered tenderness with solid walls of guitar noise, which is never less than articulate and clean-cut and perfectly managed. The sound at this show was excellent. You could hear more or less every word that was sung, you could pick out every note that was played. This contrasted markedly with The Magic Numbers show at the weekend, when everything was swallowed up in some thrashy messy mix, in spite of which the band had seemed inordinately pleased with themselves. I think if Low had found themselves immersed in a mess of noise like that they’d have walked off until it was sorted out. But they’d got it dead right, which was a testament to their care, and a compliment to the audience who’d come to listen. There's a great track on the record called "When I Go Deaf" which is a very quiet affair, just guitar and voice, until the whole thing suddenly erupts into a wall of sound, and the live version was, arguably, even better than the one on record. But the wall of sound was perfectly controlled and, as walls go, thoughtfully constructed. This was one of those gigs you tell people was stunning. Because it was.


When I got home I picked up the mail, and Tim had sent me a couple of copies of records I’d asked him to do. One was Low’s “Christmas” mini-LP, which was a great and very appropriate way to end the day. “Christmas” was released in 1999, and is a mix of original Low Christmas songs

on our way from stockholm
started to snow
and you said it was like christmas
but you were wrong
it wasn't like christmas at all

by the time we got to oslo
snow was gone
and we got lost
the beds were small but we felt so young
it was just like christmas

and some standards (Little Drummer Boy, Silent Night and Blue Christmas given the Low treatment). It’s a delight, and it doesn't have to be Christmas to enjoy it. But the snow this week has been sort of Christmas-y so things were almost perfectly co-ordinated.

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