Saturday, 9 February 2019


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thurs 31st Jan

Previous Low gigs, including those held in this very venue, had a campfire intimacy to them. Their sparse, involving music and guitarist Alan Sparhawk’s engaging personality seem to transform large venues into small ones. Though they don’t play what you could call folk music, their gigs can feel more like folk gigs than many folk gigs.

This time however the trio are backlit by banks of neon tubes (one for each member) on which projections play, effectively making them into silhouettes. And Sparkhawk only really chats to the audience for the encore.

For, not unlike Fucked Up - yet in their case more than a quarter century into their career - Low have embarked upon a radical change of direction. With the new album ’Double Negative’ heralded as a career highlight. (Fun fact! ‘Double Negative’ was one of the names I initially toyed with for this blog.)

Though I’m yet to hear the new album properly, initial findings confirm both of these. The old Low, of the haunting melodies and plangent harmonies, is still there. But, to borrow a term from Pitchfork’s review, it’s been “warped’ by studio glitch, tone and effects, until it only occasionally comes into clear view through the haze. 

It has an effective visual metaphor in this video for ‘Quorum', where everything you might expect to see in a Low video appear but in a cut-up fashion. (Another video has an ominous Lynchian poledancer. Not even kidding.) Resident Records have chimed in with “the band are here to question everything we know about them.”

Live, the change is not quite so complete. The old Low are there in front of you, and (insofar as I could tell) the only effects came from pedals. But the change was nonetheless considerable. Particularly with the long drone-like instrumental sections, which created a kind of monochrome psychedelia - sounding somewhat like My Bloody Valentine at their most out-there.

Many reviews pin this change to recent political events in their native America, over which the band have conceded they are not best pleased. (Can’t think what.) That Pitchfork review, for example, compares the title to Trump’s inability to use one over Putin. (Clue, Donny. When it’s a double negative there are two of them.) Etherial as ever, they’re hardly direct protest songs to be filed with Neil Young’s ’Let’s Impeach The President’. But there may be something to that.

I’d tended to think of the classic ’Sunflowers’ as the definitive classic Low track. It’s mood seems to evoke a world which can only ever be inexplicably mysterious to us, so the only thing we can possibly do is surrender ourselves to it. And it’s tempting to say that the always nocturnal band have now got darker. The newer songs evoke that kind of insomnia paranoia, where something preys on your mind without ever revealing to you precisely what it is.

Except that’s more neat than accurate. Low always were a blend of numinous and ominous, it’s just the balance of those elements which has shifted. Something made clear when they play ’Sunflower’ to conclude the gig.

There was one disappointment to the night, which was all my own fault. I’d seen Richard Youngs just over two years ago, where he’d obligingly offered the audience a choice between sets. I’d plumped for what he described as “one long piece about Winter” but been outvoted. Not knowing he was supporting, and having foolishly taken a short cut to the venue which proved anything but, I arrived to find him in the midst of what sounded very much like one long piece about Winter. While we were in the depths of the bleak mid-winter ourselves, snow falling at the windows as he sang. Alas, missing the first half proved to be like missing the first half of a film, there wasn’t really any catching up. Perhaps another Winter…

’Always Up’, from Glasgow…

Then back to the same venue a week later for…

St. George’s Church, Brighton, Thurs 7th Feb

The last time I saw the Residents, on their Fortieth anniversary tour, I confess I had been more intrigued than enthralled. It didn’t really dispel the notion that the point of them was to be obscure and legendary, with the musical component somewhat ancillary. At times they seemed to be going out of their way to be concept and performance artists posing as a band.

And not only had more than five years elapsed since then, but Hardy Fox had sadly died - leaving then with just one founder member. (Who I won’t name here due to their pseudonymous-till-death policy.) So I tried to keep a lid on my expectations…

As it turned out, they were much better than the previous time. There was no in-character audience banter, in fact no-one spoke to the audience at all. They remained masked, strange and remote. They were back to doing what they do best, a sinister twist on showbiz, flipping America onto its dark underbelly. Keys were minor and malevolent, rhythms irregular, and the rough-voiced singer sounding like a movie matinee villain inexplicably handed a crooner’s role. It’s quite often melodic, but melodies which would seem to have been left out to go sour.

Luke Turner’s Guardian review comments how it “treads “a fine line between terrifying and unselfconsciously daft”. And having watched a grown man in a cow costume sawing on a harmonica the way John Cale sawed on a viola, I can confirm.

There were a couple of classic covers given the glass darkly treatment, including a particularly unsettling ’It’s a Man’s World’, with the singer creepily eulogising “a woman… or a girl”. Though it was harder to tell the covers from the originals than you’d think… in fact, than would seem possible. The song I now know to be called ’From The Plains to Mexico’ had such classic lyrics (a knife fight over a girl followed by a lifetime of regret), I assumed had to be a classic I just didn’t know yet, but apparently not.

This tour, billed as ’In Between Dreams’, is self-described as “focusing on dreamlike material from the group's vast catalog.” And the set was interspersed with animated films, where dreams were purportedly recounted by celebrities such as John Wayne and Mother Theresa. In one Richard Nixon dreamt of becoming a blues singer, with Kissinger on keyboards and Al Haig on guitar.

…which might sum up the mood better than anything else. Providing the nightmare side to the American dream may seem all-too-obvious on paper, but they slip into the role like a comfy cow suit. They’re American/anti-American in the way Dada was art/anti-art. Belonging to their target just allows them to strike it all the harder.

The only downside is that, however successfully the menacing mood is conveyed, it is one mood. So while the gig is given variety and momentum, in mood terms it does hammer and hammer down on a single nail.

The main set ends with the looped phrase “there is no more to say now,” as one by one the band exit the stage. But the opposite may be true. Perusing the merch stall shortly later, I asked what the closest CD to the gig was. This standard-seeming question seemed to bemuse, but the chap finally tapped one. Yet ’Intruders’ has it’s own quite different theme - “Ghosts, angels, ex-lovers, doppelgangers... Intruders are seen as alternate beings stalking the corners of our consciousness… unseen and the uncontrollable spirits stuck in the seams of our minds.” Precisely one track from that album made the set list, ’Voodoo Doll’.

It seems this tour began last March, yet the album was released that October, mid-run. The CD advises us to “watch for DOUBLE TROUBLE coming soon to a theater or drive-in near you!”, suggesting some sort of live iteration of the album. Which is perhaps still to come. But the fact both new concepts could be thrown up near-simultaneously suggests that, forty-five years in, the Residents are very much not a spent force.

That cover of ’Man’s World’, but from the French leg…

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