LOW – The Invisible Way

Album: The Invisible Way

Artist: Low

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: March 19, 2013

Low

www.subpop.com

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Standing at the tail end of two decades of music-making, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s 10th release reads as a conscious decision to return to what they do best. For the husband-and-wife team, that means slowing things down, parsing back the arrangements and relying on the spaces in-between to tell as much of the story.

After two more sonically adventurous LPs with producer Dave Fridmann helming, Low made a smart decision by turning to Jeff Tweedy for production. The Wilco leader taps into the spare acoustic fare that he’s often excelled at on record and —to an even greater degree —with his stripped-back solo shows. The result for Sparhawk (guitars/vocals) and Parker (drums, vocals) is an album balanced between the songwriters’ personalities, each contributing to the other’s vision when needed.

You can intuit how well Parker and Sparhawk work together by the space they give each other to be themselves. In therapy-speak, you’d say their interaction is inter-dependent rather than codependent; in music terms, you’d just say there are few things more beautiful than Parker and Sparhawk harmonizing together, and that their individual narratives and imagery suggest creative minds united by base-line aesthetics —you know, the important ones.

And that’s what is so pleasing about The Invisible Way. Where the empty spaces on 2007’s Drums & Guns and 2011’s C’mon bristled and buzzed with feedback, guitar fuzz or synth strings, and the occasional processed beats, these 11 songs emphasizes a far more organic recording process. Because it’s arranged mostly on piano, acoustic guitar and timpani-like bass-drum beats, and recorded so you can hear calloused fingers slide over wound-string and foot pedals dampen piano chords, the focus shifts back to the beautiful harmonies Sparhawk and Parker use to convert their songs into hymns.

Mid-tempo lead-off track “The Cup” sets the transition back toward Low’s origins. It uses simple acoustic guitar/drums/piano and voices for a disquisition on the ephemerality of our “issues,” as future anthropologists misread an addict’s piss-test cup for a king’s goblet. But it’s tracks like the stately paced “Four Score” and “Amethyst” that really highlight Low’s strengths. On the latter, guitar lines unfurl languorously over subtle acoustic strums, slow piano fills and timpani-like beats while Sparhawk sings of beauty’s fading charms (“Oh, time, it pulls out your eyes/and makes you choose between two lies”) with Parker shadowing him in a higher register —not separate voices, but one with multiple aspects.

Parker has similarly transcendent moments — one about transcendence, specifically, on “Holy Ghost.” Creativity “feeds my passion for transcendence/turns my water into wine” Parker sings over bass-drum beats and simple guitar lines, her voice a perfectly pitched plea to a common humanity rather than a siren’s call. Similarly, the near-pop tempo of “Just Make It Stop” belies the terror at the heart of Parker’s narrative, her double-tracked vocals leading to as furious a crescendo as a low-flame piano, subtle electric guitar and brushed snare beats  could make.

There are rare moments here that don’t quite measure up to those high peaks. Parker’s piano-heavy track “So Blue” comes off a bit too strident with its ascending chord pattern, and Sparhawk’s “Clarence White” concedes any guitar work that White might’ve authored, which represents a minor flaw on an otherwise terrific track. The repetitive “happy birthday” refrain at the end of Sparhawk’s nearly six-minute “On My Own” eventually turns dulling.

But finding faults with The Invisible Way seems mostly an exercise in pure cynicism — they’re there, as are a few flubbed notes and occasional tempo variances. But those are part of the charm of this record, flaws that only confirm the organic beauty of how it was recorded and composed. This is Low’s finest work since their 2001 high-point, What We Lost In the Fire, and any band still reaching those heights a dozen years later deserves high praise.

DOWNLOAD: “Plastic Cup,” “Just Make It Stop,” “Amethyst” “On My Own”

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