Release Date: Mar 19, 2013
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Evolution is a long, slow process measured by small increments, and is particularly appropriate to apply to the band Low, who started their careers as one of the best-known “slowcore” bands. The differences from album to album for Low have been subtle and occasionally immeasurable, although their last few albums have been noticeably more up-tempo and have also displayed tendencies toward both pop and heavier, more traditional rock. On their 10th studio album, The Invisible Way, Low dials back this trend and focuses more on vocals and songwriting, even while the album sounds like a seamless step from the previous record.
It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that most bands don’t make it to 20 years. The closest the best band from Duluth, Minnesota has come to taking a break is the four years between Drums and Guns and C’mon, and that gap isn’t exactly atypical these days (plus, Alan Sparhawk put out two Retribution Gospel Choir albums in between). Twenty years! And this is Low’s tenth album, which means they’ve hit another milestone than an awful lot of bands never do.
As if to test the robustness of their longstanding modus operandi – intensely sad, often sublime songs that proceed at the pace of a funeral procession – Minnesotan trio Low enlisted Katy Perry producer Matt Beckley for their 2011 album C'Mon, with reassuringly desolate results. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy presides over their 10th album, and what variations are introduced here – swelling piano chords on So Blue, searing lead guitar largely replaced by acoustics – remain subject to the constraints of the band's sonic asceticism. As ever, it's the gorgeous harmonies of husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker that make these sparsely decorated songs take flight.
An institution of slowcore, one of indie rock's more bittersweet subsets, Low began making huge and haunted sounds out of the most minimal means in the early '90s. The Invisible Way finds the trio 20 years into its craft and returning to parts of its roots while at the same time branching into new sounds. The most noticeable shifts in the band's sound come with the production of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, working with the band for the first time here.
In their 20 years as a band, Low have covered a lot of stylistic ground within self-imposed constraints. They've experimented with electronic textures and layers of distortion and reverb while mostly sticking to the same formula: a glacial pace, stark, heavy lyrics and a keen sense of melody that finds beauty in economy. For their 10th album, they hooked up with producer Jeff Tweedy (best known as the frontman of Wilco), who takes them back to the basics while also finding new facets to explore.
Few bands have been quite as consistent and satisfying over such a long time as Low. For unwavering admirers who simply wish for dogged persistence, the signature elements of Low’s sound have now remained intact over decades, to the extent that new music is easily recognisable as their work. For those seeking development and progression, recent new releases have presented subtle and fascinating shifts in their approach and their mode of delivery.
LowThe Invisible Way(Sub Pop)Rating: 4 out of 5 starsStream The Album This year marks Low’s 20th anniversary as a band, and in that time, the Duluth, Minnesota trio has tread a lot of ground without giving up any of their core aesthetic principles. The glacially creeping sadness of I Could Live In Hope gave way to the stark heaviness of Things We Lost In the Fire, and the noisier, dense textures of The Great Destroyer gave way to the rustic simplicity of C’mon. Yet each of these albums, while somewhat different in tone and in texture, could have only come from a band as graceful and as masterful with delicate beauty as Low is.
LowThe Invisible Way[Sub Pop; 2013]By Rob Hakimian; March 29, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGOn their last two albums, Drums and Guns and C’mon, the placidity of Low’s music was becoming less of a feature, with louder guitars and a seething undercurrent in some of Alan Sparhawk’s songs, as if the work he was doing with Retribution Gospel Choir (which he was involved with concurrently with those two records) was spilling over into his main band. The Invisible Way therefore seems like a bit of a step back; it’s their quietest and simplest record for some time, and much closer to their slowcore beginnings. The Invisible Way was recorded at Wilco’s studios in Chicago, and having Jeff Tweedy behind the desk they might have been tempted to try out some artier production styles as we often hear on Wilco records or as Low tried themselves on Drums and Guns.
It’s easy to forget and hard to believe that Low have been doing this for 20 years now. Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and John Nichols started the group in 1993, following in the wake of Codeine and Galaxie 500 but eventually coming to represent the slowcore sub-subgenre by dint of sheer longevity. Those two acts have already reissued their entire catalogs, but Low have kept on keeping on.
Low do not attribute their longevity to their dauntless work ethic. You’d think that part of what keeps them going must be for very mature reasons – a search for sustainability in a business that is anything but sustainable, a necessity to provide to their children, or simply the routine of doing their job because they excel at it. During their twenty-year run, they’ve endured many significant periods in rock history without altering their set path: the rise and fall of grunge, the turn-of-the-century teen bop boom, and the ever-increasing prominence of electronic music in the separatist, all-things-indie diaspora.
Twenty years and 10 albums – the numbers would point to The Invisible Way being a landmark moment for Low. And yet instead of a career-defining opus, what we get is arguably the band’s most low-key record to date. It’s apparent that the making of The Invisible Way was characterised by its efficiency. The album’s tracklist and stripped-down aesthetic were determined at the demo stage, with the finished product recorded quickly and simply with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy last autumn.
Having cemented their signature sound around the turn of the century, Low has spent the last decade branching out from it. On 2005’s The Great Destroyer, the Duluth trio bid farewell to vast empty spaces and long silences under the guidance of maximalist producer Dave Fridmann, who returned for 2007’s even more audacious Drums and Guns, an album as violent and percussive as its title. And though the group seemed to play to familiar strengths on 2011’s C’mon, that album still stood as one of their richest, more diverse works, a testament to how vast their playbook had grown.
Gradual change is rare for most groups, but Duluth, MN trio Low has morphed from a slowcore band into a folk-tinged rock outfit over its 20 years of existence. Like most indie bands, Low will trot out a new production style or genre experiment alongside each full-length release. Musical litmus tests will no doubt be taken on tour-and when it's time to regroup in the studio, new evolutionary traits deepen the overall Low experience.
The 10th album from Duluth, Minnesota’s elder statesmen of elegant, doomy indie is something of a restrained step back from the stormy Crazy Horse-ism’s of 2011’s excellent C’Mon. This could be partly down to frontman Alan Sparhawk channelling his grungier energies into his Retribution Gospel Choir side project, though it’s equally likely to be a result of the calming influence of producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Under Tweedy’s guidance The Invisible Way showcases a strikingly sparse yet warm side to the group, with the emphasis on acoustic instrumentation.
The rules have always been different for Low. When audiences demanded livelier performances from their early shows, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker turned their amps down. Twenty years since the band’s inception, the husband/wife/revolving-bassist act remains one of the last living bearers of the contentious “slowcore” tag—a term, Sparhawk recently quipped, that is at least useful “because in one word you know if it’s like MotÃ¶rhead or not.” Aided by Jeff Tweedy’s production talents, Low’s tenth album The Invisible Way inflicts a country twang upon the band’s longstanding aesthetic, reining in some of its trademark sprawl for modest, self-contained compositions.
Low has cleaned up their sound on their 10th album, the Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies are clearer and the instrumentation is more pristine. The album begins on a strong lyrical note: “You could always count on your friends to get you high,” Sparhawk sings on opener “Plastic Cup,” a song about failure: failed drug tests, failed relationships, and failed songwriting attempts.
We’re a world and nearly twenty years away from the soul-bathing wonder of Low’s debut, the Kramer produced I Could Live In Hope, and only a handful less from their commercial peak with the glory of single ‘Over The Ocean’. That was a time when they shared a sound with slowcore heroes Red House Painters – martial drums, endless, repetitive chiming guitar and heart-rending changes – yet never seemed able to replicate the excellence of that band’s songwriter Mark Kozelek. A lot has changed, the band progressing to a natural peak on the memorable Things We Lost In the Fire (2001) and re-emerging with perhaps their most accessible and instant work with 2011’s C’mon, a humorous but haunted house of a pop record as good as anything to spring from the States that year.
Although they’re definitely against their oft-described ‘slowcore’ description, the music of Low has always seemed fitting for this title. With nine previous albums already under their belt, the duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have remained a constant figure and their vocals, along with their even-tempered music, have always maintained Low’s steadfast consistency. The music has always released on minimal tendencies, with convictions that are usually presented in slower tempos and with, well, low attacks.
“You can always count on your friends to get you high,” sings Alan Sparhawk, his voice cracking open Low’s 10th album like a creaky door. Likewise, you can always count on Low to get you . . . well, just that. A sampling of Facebook friends asked to listen to “Plastic Cup” yielded ….
Twenty years into their career, Low have created one of their best albums yet. Paul Whitelaw 2013 Despite the fact that Low have made various modifications to the hushed, intimate, acoustic sound that first brought them renown in the 90s, the Minnesota trio are still regarded in some quarters as a sleepily unchanging beast: the 'slowcore' Ramones. Granted, nobody approaches a new Low release expecting a radical change of direction, but albums such as 2005's The Great Destroyer have shown a willingness to experiment with their understated template.
There’s an elegant psychodrama at the heart of Low’s majestic output. Since 1994, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have projected their sparse ruminations on dysfunction and the apocalypse through the prism of ravenous and often rapturous folk songs. The majestic union of the couple’s voices in harmony elevated their dirges into the realm of the sacrosanct, a trajectory that has only in recent years been diverted to harsher or plusher domains (2005’s ‘The Great Destroyer’ and 2011’s ‘C’mon’ respectively).But the Low we encounter on ‘The Invisible Way’ appears to have undergone an inversion; it is no longer Sparhawk’s mildly irascible voice which dominates.
Low is a hard-working band. Admittedly, that’s a pretty empty phrase—it brings to mind scruffy guys hauling amp’s around, writing songs in moving cars and wearing bandanas—but in this case it’s a fitting description. With the relationship between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker as its unshakable bedrock, Low has endured for two decades not by chasing trends or reinventing itself, but by following its own fragile muse and simply doing the work.
LOW“The Invisible Way”(Sub Pop) Low has always been a gospel group, by fiat if not for its actual content. Its music — hushed, syrupy indie rock that’s ecstatic in a roundabout way — isn’t religious per se, but it does embody reverence as well as any soaring operatic solo or monster ….
They emerged from Minnesota's club circuit in the early 90s, at a time when grunge was dominant, kicking against expectations by developing a defiantly minimalist sound. So it's no surprise that Low have remained confident enough to stick to their convictions ever since. Once their music was lazily labeled 'slowcore', but defying outside pressures, their continual tonal and textural explorations have repeatedly defied attempts to classify them.