Low - review of in the fishtank
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Low + Dirty Three, In the Fishtank EP [Konkurrent]
Rating: 7.9

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' fins off.

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 "interesting."

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.

-Brendan Reid