“My favorite day,” said Pooh.
― Winnie The Pooh,A.A. Milne
“Well the hour makes its plan
And the minutes count their gold
But the sweet second-hand always knows
Which way the wind blows.”
― “Do The Right Now”,The Lowest Of The Low
The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame isn’t exactly overflowing with them, but there really are bands out there who willingly packed it in at the height of their power. Think of The Police or The Jam or The White Stripes, each of whom elected to stop making music well before someone suggested they ought to. Conversely, there are those who perhaps overstay their welcome, long after all but their most faithful fans have determined that latter-day albums aren’t canon-worthy.
Lowest of the Low’s principled, agit-pop roots mean the Toronto indie-rock stalwarts identify more readily with the artists whose instincts were to walk away from it all – and they did, for a while. Yet here they are in the Summer of 2017, preparing to unleash their excellent fourth studio album. Do they catch themselves sometimes wondering if they’re in jeopardy of diminishing returns or surpassing their ‘best before’ date?
“Every time a band releases new material,” says the Low’s lead singer/songwriter Ron Hawkins, “there’s a risk of chipping away at the legacy. As we worked on this record, there was a big part of my brain saying ‘Do even Low fans want a new Low album?’”
Hawkins and his compatriots needn’t have worried about tarnishing their legacy, though, as the dozen songs on Do The Right Now more than hold their own against the strongest output of a band that’s now deep into its third decade (with time off for bad behaviour).
The album was laid down at Revolution Recording in Toronto, with Ron Hawkins and studio co-owner Joe Dunphy sharing production duties. It was performed by founding Low members Hawkins and David Alexander, fellow drummer Jody Brumell, guitarist Brian MacMillan, bassist Derrick Brady (all of whom play with Ron in The Do-Good Assassins) and long-time collaborator Lawrence Nichols who has been a full-fledged member in the past and is back in the fold again.
Arriving 13 years after the last Lowest of the Low record Sordid Fiction (and a half-dozen releases from Ron as a solo artist or with his other group The Do-Good Assassins), the album is a near-perfect embodiment of the Low’s evolution as a band. It’s got the clever wordplay, razor-sharp hooks, meaty riffs and airtight harmonies that permeate their back-catalogue, but also benefits from a broader sonic palette that can only come with experience and experimentation. It’s a thrilling natural progression of their insistent sound, and it manages to pull off a pretty sly, contradictory trick, too: it’s a modern treatise on living in the moment that simultaneously manages to take an over-the-shoulder glance at the group’s own past.
In addition to the accomplished playing and immediacy of the melodies, nearly all of the songs on Do The Right Now are united by a common, overarching theme: the importance of mindfulness, of being present in an age of distraction rather than fixating on the future or being a slave to your past. “Tomorrow’s a lie and yesterday’s gone,” as the title track asserts.
“Once you get into your 40s and 50s, there’s a sense of mortality that’s just obvious in your life in a way that it isn’t at 25,” Hawkins offers. “I don’t feel like you have the time to waste on small stuff. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be present and live in the moment. That ended up surfacing in a lot of the songs, and it became apparent that this record was sort of about that very thing. I’m sure there are elements of living in the now in most of my records, but I realized that’s what this one is about at its core.”
What’s fascinating is that at the same time the album encourages the carpe’ing of many diems, it also allows for some examination of the band’s mythology. For those arriving somewhat late to the party, Lowest of the Low rose to prominence after the release of their 1991 debut album Shakespeare…My Butt — 17 tracks of smart, spiky, socially conscious folk-rock that were assembled from character sketches and journal entries in Ron’s ever-present notebook as he wandered the streets of Toronto. The end result was an eloquent love letter to the city and its people, interspersed with some fictionalized tales of the Spanish Civil War (more on that later). The record’s resonance increases by an order of magnitude every couple of years, to the point where even today, Shakespeare consistently appears in the upper echelons of many a “Greatest Canadian Albums Of All Time” list.
When a bandmate recently asked Hawkins if he thought he could ever conjure ‘Shakespeare2.0’– not so much aping the original tunes, but returning to that subject matter and style of songwriting – he had a pretty visceral reaction. “Initially, the hair raised on the back of my neck and I said ‘What? That sounds ridiculous.’ And then I realized ‘Oh, that’s actually an interesting idea.’ I’m 52 now, what about an album where the 52-year-old version of the 27-year-old guy who wrote Shakespeare is walking through the same neighbourhoods in the same town and has a new take on it all?” The album began to truly take shape when Ron’s resolve to be as present as possible in his daily life was married to that “future past” conceit.
It’s pretty solid advice on offer within the grooves of Do The Right Now, for artists and citizens alike: remember and learn from the old days, but don’t dwell on them. Consider the future, just not to the extent that you overlook the life that’s in front of you. And as for those nagging thoughts about whether people wanted another Low album, or if the band should call it a day? Let’s just say that when fans are singing along to “Something To Believe In”, they’ll likely put a little extra ‘oomph’ into the “stay a little longer” line…
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