Low, the husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, have been making beautiful music together for 20 years, and on The Invisible Way, their 10th full-length studio album, the lovely, haunting harmonies and melodies that highlight their distinctive sound are once again in strong evidence.
Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the album’s sound is, at times, both rich and spare. In an album dominated by piano and acoustic guitar, with only the slightest hint of percussion, the couple, joined by bassist Steve Garrington, continue the exploration of intimacy, war, life, death and transcendence that has marked their earlier work.
While past albums have tended to feature Sparhawk carrying the majority of the lead vocals, The Invisible Way has Sparhawk and Parker trading off leads, and hearing more from Parker is a good thing, as the album’s strongest tracks have her at the forefront.
The standout track, “So Blue”, showcases Parker’s strong, sweet voice, somewhat reminiscent of Aimee Mann, as she considers the sadness, pain and necessity of relationship. Accompanied by a soaring, pounding piano and bass, the anthem-like tune builds to a powerful, goose-bump inducing crescendo.
“Holy Ghost” unfolds softly and slowly, as Parker, backed by a gentle, acoustic guitar, invokes the mysterious Holy Ghost who, “feeds my passion for transcendence.” But like most of the songs on the album, there’s a sense of disquiet, a sense that something’s wrong and that the answer may be available, but not easy to find.
In “Just Make It Stop”, another piano driven song, the sense of unease appears again, as Parker, at the end of her rope, pleads “If I could just make it stop, I could tell the whole world to get out of the way.” The song does end on a note of hope, with Parker glimpsing blue sky from the bottom of a ten foot hole.
Starhawk has his moments too. The album’s opening cut, “Plastic Cup”, with the guitarist on lead vocals, tells the story of a plastic cup, used for drug testing, being discovered by future archaeologists, who mistake it for a king’s vessel. The song is suddenly turned on its ear, however, as Starhawk abruptly and jarringly ends the saga with the line, “Maybe you should go out and write your own damn song, and move on.”
Perhaps the prettiest song on the album, “Amethyst”, a plaintive, relationship ballad, features the duo at their sweet, harmonious best, their layered vocals mixed with sparse guitar and piano, providing the song’s gorgeous melody.
Despite a clunker or two, The Invisible Way stands as a good, if not great album, both powerful and moving. It’s a solid piece of work from a group who know their strengths and know how to put them to very effective use.
The Invisible Way is out now on Sub Pop Records. Above photo by Zoran Orlic.
Sub Pop Records [12″ LP, 2013]
1. Plastic Cup
3. So Blue
4. Holy Ghost
6. Clarence White
7. Four Score
8. Just Make It Stop
10. On My Own
11. To Our Knees