“Mormons can’t rock. There, I said it,” a friend of mine quipped about Low after I posted my overview of the band on Facebook. In response to that statement, I must bring up the Butler brothers of Arcade Fire and New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, as well as the fact that Low isn’t a particularly rocking band. Their style is mainly based around minimalism, harmony and beauty; three things that many people, including my friend, love about The xx, and what I love about Yo La Tengo’s “Fade.”
Like “Fade,” Low’s new album “The Invisible Way” is basic. If you’ve heard their other albums, nothing here will surprise you. Also, like “Fade,” the songs work splendidly.
That’s not to say “The Invisible Way” is as good as “Fade,” one of Yo La Tengo’s key albums (and my favorite of the year so far), but the two are definitely similar. Here, Mimi Parker sounds more Georgia Hubley than she ever has, and if the album tops Yo La Tengo’s record in one way, it’s the fact that it’s less androcentric (while Hubley only sang lead on two of 10 tracks on “Fade,” Parker sang on five of 11 on “The Invisible Way”). As somebody who loves female vocalists, this is definitely something I can appreciate about this album.
Of all the comparisons that can be made between the two albums, the most obvious is that they’re quite basic. While Low’s last album, “C’mon,” was fantastic and among their most masterful endeavors, it was also the least Low-like, with bigger arrangements and poppier production.
“The Invisible Way” sounds like the band is returning to the sound that never managed to make them famous. The reason for this is probably the change of producers. “C’mon” was produced by Matt Beckley, who had previously worked on Avril Lavigne’s “The Best Damn Thing,” Justin Bieber’s “My World 2.0” and Ke$ha’s “Animal.” The contrast between Low’s previous albums and “C’mon” was probably due to Beckley (that’s really not a bad thing; its production is gorgeous). “The Invisible Way,” meanwhile, was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a band known for being sparse.
Low isn’t necessarily a band where production is essential, though. As long as the hooks and harmonies are there, chances are that their work will be enjoyable. In those terms, “The Invisible Way” isn’t up to par with “C’mon,” which hit a bull’s-eye with almost every track. Here, the success rate is lower. The “happy birthday” ending in “On My Own” is among the group’s weakest attempts at a hook, while “Amethyst” and “Waiting” are forgettable. Still, when the songs here work, they really work.
The opening track, “Plastic Cup,” works. Along with being haunting and mysterious, as Low’s music usually is, the song’s lyrics are thoughtful, concerning a drug test cup that gets dug up thousands of years later and hailed as a significant item (kind of like “The Gods Must Be Crazy” if it were made by a slowcore band).
Any time Parker takes lead on this album, magic happens, with “Just Make It Stop,” “Holy Ghost” and “So Blue” being particularly special. The album’s finest moment, however, goes to “Clarence White,” sung by Alan Sparhawk. This is the one moment on the album where Tweedy’s presence is completely obvious, and it also houses one of the best hooks the band has ever put on record (“I know I shouldn’t be afraid”).
“The Invisible Way” isn’t one of Low’s top five albums (that’s like saying “The Departed” isn’t one of Scorsese’s five best films), but it’s a nice return to form, and is at least better than
“Secret Name,” “The Great Destroyer” and “Drums and Guns.”
On Sub Pop Records, Low has released two memorable albums and two mediocre ones. Their next release will be the tiebreaker, where we find out if their move to the label was worth it. I’m looking forward to it.
Key tracks: “Clarence White,” “Just Make It Stop,” “Plastic Cup,” “Holy Ghost” and “So Blue.”