Low + Dirty Three, In the Fishtank EP [Konkurrent]
Am I alone here in thinking that the phrase "In the Fishtank" sounds, I dunno,
maybe something like a euphemism for some weird childhood punishment? The
cover art to this album-- the seventh installment in a series of EPs produced
by placing handpicked bands in the eponymous studio for spontaneous two-day
recording sessions-- doesn't really allay the creepiness. We see a pair of
deceptively cute, speckled fish (maybe gobies, or drobies, or gillies) floating
on a deceptively tranquil aqua backdrop. Eerily, the fish don't seem that far
removed from those flashy tropical fighting fish that rip their tankmates'
It doesn't help that the label putting out these records is named "Konkurrent"
(as in, "the diabolical Konkurrent corporation"). It also doesn't help that
the K's signify not only evil but blatant foreign-ness. It's not too much of
a leap to imagine these Konkurrent folk hijacking unsuspecting bands on tour
in the Netherlands and whisking them off to their Amsterdam drug-fortress to
breed an indie rock master race.
I'm also a bit wary because the last time they paired two bands together "in
the fishtank," it was the unlikely combination of Tortoise and avant-punkers
the Ex, a union whose musical offspring didn't graduate much beyond
It's encouraging to see that the bands seem to at least make some sense
together this time; both Low and Dirty Three work in broad, deliberate strokes
at virtually nonexistent tempos. Also, we learn in the liner notes that Herr
Doktor Konkurrent didn't arrange this match himself; Low actually invited
their Aussie mates to play with them. With this, however, the question
becomes not one of compatibility but of musical interest: will the pairing
challenge two admittedly great bands to do anything new?
From the opening seconds of the first track, "I Hear. Goodnight," it's
easy to see what roles the bands' members have taken; Low's Alan Sparhawk
plays a measured, delicate counterpoint to Mick Turner's woozy, stumbling
guitarwork, while Jim White's pointillist drums keep the song anchored to
some vague sense of tempo. It's amazing how "bandlike" the group sounds--
Zak Sally fills in as the bassist Dirty Three never had, while Warren Ellis
becomes the violinist Low fantasize about in their Mormon-style wet dreams.
Mimi Parker enters with something like an apocalyptic lullaby ("I hear the
windows shake/ I hear the silence break/ I hear the moon turn to blood") that
quietly breaks down into the chorus before Ellis lifts it up again with a
swelling, wistful solo. Interesting, for sure, and as pretty as anything
either group has done before.
The next track, an inverted version of Neil Young's "Down by the River,"
is just as solid, with a long, formless, quietly chaotic opening that
gradually takes shape into Parker's icy rendition of Young's confessional
lyrics. Even in this soup, Sparhawk's guitar meanderings sound both distinct
from Turner's string-popping feedback swoops, and perfectly complementary.
In the next song, "Invitation Day," things start to get brilliant. Parker,
Sparhawk, and Sally trace out a silvery, descending modal melody, which Dirty
Three proceeds to prick at with plucked violin and drunken strumming. Before
you know it, the bands seem to merge, and once again, lift the song up to
heaven. With the addition of White's drums and a droning church organ, "When
I Called Upon Your Seed" sounds more country than anything Low has ever done,
even as it threatens to turn into a D3-esque slow-motion sea chantey.
"Cody" seems to be a bit of a step backward, sounding like little more than a
Dirty Three tune with a bassline. However, the EP's sixth and final track,
"Lordy," follows through on its rootsy impulses; Sparhawk actually takes up
the banjo and whips up a sincere Gospel vocal fury as Parker propels the song
with surprisingly intense drumming. Ellis and Turner get caught up in the
rapture as well, churning out an echoed, noisy jubilance that thrashes in
waves around the baptismal flame.
This track alone makes what could have been a nothing more than one-off EP
worth it; it's like seeing those fighting fish at the pet store suddenly
starting to rip shit up together. And, like any other pleasant surprise,
it's deeply frustrating to know that this is a one-time-only deal. The
possibilities apparent in this collaboration deserve to be developed in ways
that the format just can't provide. But it's at least as satisfying to see
this one end the way it does, with a pile of torn scales slowly starting to
gather on the bottom of the tank.