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Low - The Invisible Way

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Artist: Low

Album: The Invisible Way

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: May. 15, 2013

Low has existed as a band for 20 years now, and when you’ve been around that long, certain informational nuggets become music-crit cliché: their roots in “slowcore” and its legacy; the fact that two-thirds of the band (namely Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker) are a couple; that their lyrics are equally comfortable with statements of humble faith and explorations of religious fanaticism.

But Sparhawk and Parker also retain the capacity to surprise. C’mon (2011) gave us something new to talk about: Low in full-on rock-band mode, rediscovering an unexpected jubilation. Some of the band’s most striking work has come via collaboration, particularly the EP made in conjunction with Dirty Three, which remains the rare one-off that finds each group complementing the other’s sound.

For The Invisible Way, they’ve mixed things up again, at least in the liner notes. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy was recruited as producer. At first listen, the LP bears all the signs of a return to (stark, minimalist) form, but further listens reveal something stranger afoot. While this is certainly a more pared-down sound than was heard on its predecessor, it’s also a far cry from Secret Name II; rather, it represents a progression from the sound of C’mon rather than a repudiation of it.

Harmonies between Parker and Sparhawk abound on the album’s opener “Plastic Cup,” which details a life lived a bit too hard. It’s an unadorned and empathic sound; it’s also a back-to-basics one. Piano figures prominently on a number of The Invisible Way’s songs, especially “So Blue,” where Parker’s voice takes center stage for one long (and very effective) buildup. I was reminded of the same hard-fought emotional terrain as heard on Portishead’s Third. (Start your petitions now for a split covers 7”).

Things take a turn for the noisier as The Invisible Way draws to a close. Fans of Sparhawk’s Retribution Gospel Choir will know of his capacity for ragged guitar leads, but like so much of the album, the pace here is deliberate, the feedback sloughing off the guitar at odds with the more measured rhythms and deliberately sung vocals. The version of Low that helped define a subgenre remains recognizable throughout, but their sound has expanded. Sometimes that expansion comes from the fraying sound of rampant guitar feedback; sometimes it emerges from a further honing of minimal sonic elements. In either case, Low retains the ability to evolve and surprise -- no mean feat after 20 years.

By Tobias Carroll

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