The invisible way, Low, 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-power choir.
That was the band’s selling point in its early years, but lately, it’s evolved. It turned things up to 11 — OK, to five or six – beginning with The Great Destroyer in 2005, which was its first album for Sub Pop. On The Invisible Way, its 10th full-length album in two decades as a band, it pulls back from that intensity but adds new layers of depth and surprise.
The album is produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, though it’s worth noting that even he can’t do much harm to a band with borders and instincts this strong. If he’s done anything, it’s to make the group assertive in small doses. Mimi Parker, who plays drums, is a more forceful and prominent singer here than in the past, especially on Holy Ghost and the striking album closer, To Our Knees. And musically, there are new intrusions: the piano on Amethyst, which arrives like a defibrillator, or the doom metal breakdown that eats the end of On My Own whole. These gestures have disproportionate meaning in Low’s ecosystem.
If anything, the rise in Parker’s intensity puts the band’s regular frontman, Alan Sparhawk, in new, slightly less flattering light. His yarn-telling, on songs like Mother, is still strong, but his voice lacks some of his band mate’s oomph. In the past Low was doing more with less. But it’s becoming clear that less isn’t always more.
-Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service
Muchacho, Phosphorescent, Dead Oceans
Matthew Houck, the self-directed highway mystic behind Phosphorescent, bookends his new album, Muchacho, with a slow, wakening melody sung by a mass of voices. The voices are all his — multitracked, mostly set in falsetto range — and with a series of elongated vowels they salute the gradual arrival of dawn. Both tracks, Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction) and Sun’s Arising (A Koan, an Exit) serve a ritual and meditative purpose, but they also enfold the album in a shroud of grandiosity.
Don’t let that give you the wrong idea. Phosphorescent is a Brooklyn band that hasn’t forgotten its Southern pedigree, creating washy psychedelia with a foothold in country-rock. Muchacho does come with its share of artistic pretensions: Houck wrote these songs while hiding out in a beach hut on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in the aftermath of a romantic unraveling. “I sang, ‘Roll away the stone,”’ begins Muchacho’s Tune, the bittersweet, echoey centerpiece, and it isn’t the only instance on the album where Houck’s lyrics claim resurrection, along with martyrdom.
But a bad breakup has a way of blowing things out of proportion, and these songs deftly map out that mess of ragged hurt, smoldering hope and self-righteous spite. Houck, who has made a close study of outlaw-country confessionals, kicks off the album’s lead single with a wry nod to Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash and June Carter song, over a reverberant chord progression that also evokes With or Without You, by U2.
“See, honey, I am not some broken thing,” he insists, though by that point in the tune, called Song for Zul, he has already shown his hand:
See, the cage, it called. I said, ‘Come on in’
I will not open myself up this way again
Nor lay my face to the soil, nor my teeth to the sand
I will not lay like this for days now upon end
The scriptural cadence and mythic gravity of Houck’s lyrics, here and elsewhere, manage not to overburden his emotional payload. Over the past decade of releases as Phosphorescent, he has learned how to add layer upon layer of information without losing an essential lightness of touch. A Charm/A Blade is a good illustration of this principle: it has this album’s most rhetorical structure, delivered with those crowded vocal harmonies, which sound more festive than oppressive.
But that might be an underlying mission on this album, to find peace in turmoil. Phosphorescent, currently on tour, does that sort of thing well. The final moments on Muchacho, near the end of Houck’s sun salutation, find him singing “Be easy,” as a mantra. Then, finally, just “Be.”
-Nate Chinen, NY Times News Service