The slowcore originators of Low have developed over the course of their 10 records about as swiftly as the genre they are credited with establishing (which is close to stagnant). The earlier work of Low in the 1990s and early 2000s, saw the band in its prime; the husband-wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker that make up the core of the trio, which also includes Steve Garrington, were seasoned in crooning over the most minimalist of textures, such as on the seminal 2001 release from the band, “Things We Lost in the Fire.”
A decade’s time is what it took for the band to make the shift it has seen since then. Nowadays, it seems the Sparhawk/Parker combo is geared towards an alt-country sound on “The Invisible Way.” The album, released Tuesday, is largely an acoustic one, covered from beginning to end with a steady acoustic guitar strum and plenty of chordal arrangements on the piano. Sparhawk and Parker share lead vocalist duties, and both voices are as emotionally compelling as ever. To observe the bare surface of the music, the slow half of slowcore is very much intact on “The Invisible Way.”
These developments – the acoustic quality and Parker’s increased vocal presence – tinge the album with an overbearing and overheard folky aesthetic. Low’s extremely moderate tempos have stuck around, but the instrumentation has been altered. After listening, it is hard not to connect this new sound with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s producer role on the album. Think a family band, or a 21st century Peter, Paul and Mary that extends its melodies minutes longer.
The drone-oriented sound Low had a decade or so ago that resonated from their guitars has been converted to Parker’s voice. The last two minutes of “So Blue” are dedicated to her chanting “So blue / With you” repeatedly, with a chromatically built-up piano. Perhaps Low is shooting for a “straight from the heart” sensibility, but the uncomfortable feeling from an elongated performance sets in within 30 seconds. Similar can be said for “Just Make It Stop,” also sung by Parker, whose repetitious quality kicks off just seconds into the song. The repetition these songs observe is not its bothersome trait, but rather it is the lack of melodic arc within the repetition – the songs build quickly then plateau, leaving little aspiration for the listener.
Luckily, Low does not do this for the whole record. “On My Own,” a song led by Sparhawk, begins with Sparhawk singing on the seemingly formulaic acoustic guitar-piano collaboration. It is a bit cheeky, considering the song is the second-to-last one on the record, and has a riding-into-the-sunset appeal. Sparhawk even opens the song with “At the end of the story / At the start of the song.” Its introduction is a bit exhausted after listening to the previous nine tracks.
That is, until the halfway point in the tune when the distortion guitar is kicked on and the song becomes sludgy – comparable to a slightly more melodic Sonic Youth. This moment is unexpected in the scope of the record, especially well after half the record has been absorbed. Nonetheless, it is a glorious moment that yields longing for old Low. That said, Low does not seem lost in its current sound.