St. George's Church, Brighton, Sat 3rd Dec
Now flying below the radar for something like twenty-three years, the constant core of Low is the couple of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (guitar and drums respectively). Their signature sound is sparse (Parker's drum kit barely breaking into the plural) and yet expansive. Despite being dubbed with the slowcore tag, they can fall so quiet you'd hear a pin drop but can also crank up the noise as soon as it it suits them.
Though there's post-rock and sometimes even minimalist elements to their sound, their strong melodic sense sense means even the extended numbers never quite give up on being songs. They're particularly effective at double vocals, perhaps suggesting there's harmonies and then there's husband-and-wife harmonies. None less than Robert Plant covered two of their tracks on his 'Band of Joy' album.
If they don't actually sound much like Slint, both have the sense that their element is moonlight, less at odds with the workaday world than belonging in some parallel reality to it. I was particularly pleased they were returning to St. George's Church, as they work best outside of regular rock venues.
Though I've now seen the band live a few times, there was always one piece of the puzzle which never seemed to fit. I am not, I hope you know, so blinkered as to not listen to music made by Christians. In fact this time last year I saw Josh T Pearson at a similar Church in Hove, singing Pentecostal hymns, and commented “what a great songbook the hymn book really is”.
But Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons. And, with no disrespect to their good selves, I cannot help but regard Mormonism as crankery. Yet their music seems a far cry from happy-clappy feelgood or proselyting platitudes. Their signature mood is sombre, their songs taking place in a strange and ultimately unknowable world. Sparhawk has said of them "It's about not having answers.” As Drowned in Sound's Euan McLean has commented, it’s “not what you’d expect from a band containing a pair of married Mormon parents.”
And what could bring all that to the fore more than a concert of Christmas songs? (Based on a 1999 EP. While their website sells limited edition Christmas socks. And no, I'm not making any of this up.) Over the years the Christmas show seems to have become a Low staple, though with not always even results. The interweb mentions a London show of some years back which was met with heckles. While the only Christmas song Humbug head here can normally cope with is the Pogues' 'Fairy Tale of New York', and only that because it speaks the word like a curse.
The set's a mixture of originals, covers (such as Elvis' 'Blue Christmas') and Christmas classics. Yes, genuine Christmas classics, such as 'Little Drummer Boy' and 'Silent Night'. Which, however unlikely that sounds, went down like mulled wine, and the songs I'd normally never ask to hear became a gig highlight! Their versions reminded me, of all things, of Jeffrey Lewis' album of Crass covers. (Well Crass themselves did a Christmas single so perhaps there's some sort of a link.) Both sing the songs their own way but with absolute conviction, without smartypants reworkings and not a note of hipster irony. Can christmas carols be as great as the hymn book, or is it just what Low bring to them? I don't suppose there's any telling.
Certainly they're kitted out for such material. They sing simply and undemonstratively, with little inflection, like all the vocal is there to do is to serve the song. An attitude which always reminds me of folk music, but perhaps religious music is similar in that way.
Strangely, rather than shackling the band to the theme the result was quite possibly the most varied set I've seen from them. Precisely one track went for undermining the Christmas spirit,'Santa’s Coming Over', infusing the line “will he see the cookies?” with more menace than most death metal bands manage in a career. (A great track, but not something you could sustain for a set.) One number was so full of Christmas cheer it prompts an audience clap-along, a first for any Low gig I've been to.
Actually from the gig (no really)...
The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 7th Dec
This young Irish four-piece are, as the name might suggest, an all male band. (In the tradition of Girl and Girls Against Boys. Though apparently one of the Theoretical Girls was genuinely a girl!)
The opening track sets out their stall, over almost insanely metronomic guitar sounds the singer screams a single line over and over - “Why they hide their bodies under my garage?” It seems simultaneously a nonsense mantra and buried trauma recalled through the power of primal scream. While the guitars don't sound much like guitars, yet never quite not like guitars. It sounds like the scarier side of techno, somehow transcribed onto rock instruments. (And I learn later it's a cover of the electronic dance outfit Blawan.)
Instruments can sound like they're howling and shrieking with mistreatment, or as abrasive as a key dragging down the paintwork. It's often the sheer audacious act of repeating them which turns the sounds into riffs. They'll hold to a line for near-absurd lengths, then suddenly blow it wide open. (There were no Christmas numbers that night. Unless they did a delayed encore of ’Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ after I’d left the venue.) Yet there's just about enough melody to keep things this side of outright noise rock.
They have a style but never anything so predictable as a formula. Tracks can stretch, or deliver their blow and get out. One, which sounds like a rock version of gabba, is done in thirty seconds. Surprisingly, however good they are at internal dynamics, about their only weakness is endings – some songs just crash out.
As a rough and ready guide, imagine 'Idiot'-era Iggy, with it's recipe of rock-meets-electronic-dance. The vocals in particular have his mix of arch and frenzied. Yet instead of being produced by Bowie with proper musicians, imagine it was kicked into life in a Detroit basement by the original Stooges. It harnesses the relentlessness of dance music, while keeping the animal abandon of punk.
Phil Harrison wrote in the Quietus: “These are cranky, abstracted journeys through texture, noise and rhythm with howling, gibbering singer Dara Kiely as our unreliable spirit guide. At their best, Girl Band manage to locate a sweet spot between chaos and precision, poise and frenzy, hysteria and logic.” Which sums it up so well I don't know why I don't just pack up and leave things to the pros.
The venue's packed, with the audience raging from photogenic indie kids to other old codgers like me. Much like the original Stooges, there's no telling how much they're working by animal instinct and how much by smarts. Which makes it hard to predict how much longevity the band might have. But let's hope they can keep this thing up...
Not from an indoor venue in Brighton during the winter. You may have guessed that by yourself…