Sunday, June 26, 2011

Low- C'mon

The Rosetta's Stone to knowing what Low's new album is about rests squarely and obviously in its title: C'mon. As in, “come on in” or “follow me.” It's not often a band is so free of pretense and mystery as to what they were going for with a record, so I'm a bit mystified as to why the reviews have been talking about C'mon as a sort of backward looking, consolidating-the-last-few-releases kind of album. There may be strains of Low's older 'slowcore' style on this album, and the crunchy guitar sound certainly tips its hat to The Great Destroyer, but by and large the feel and atmosphere is distinct and different from previous works.

Low have always come off as humorless and unhappy people in their music. If you wouldn't necessarily agree with that (and you shouldn't, because it's inaccurate) I do think it's inarguable that they have always kept a listener at arm's length. Even the legendary intimacy of older releases like Secret Name felt more like you were in the next room, or anyway, that the band were singing/playing for each other and not you. C'mon, by contrast, is open and direct, aimed squarely outward and at the listener. Hopeful and upbeat, not to mention lush and unfailingly melodic, it is just as much of a revolution in the band's sound as The Great Destroyer or Drums and Guns. This time out, however, it's not about the instruments used or the lyrical topics; superficially this does sound like, as I put it above, a backward looking, consolidating kind of album. The revolution here is in the feel and atmosphere.

If C'mon didn't end up being the light and fun record it initially struck me as, it still contains some of the most beautiful and detailed music the band has ever made. 'Especially Me' recalls the indistinct loops and textures of Drums and Guns but replaces those electronic glitches and drones with intricate layers of instruments, from buried vibraphones (at least I think they're vibraphones) to plucked strings to what sounds like a swooning flute or treated organ. The mixing may make this more of a headphones-required record than I would've liked, but the tradeoff is that the vocals are mixed high and in the center. As a lover of husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's voices, whether together or alone, C'mon makes for a nice little gift to me. A sign of this positive change, '$20' sounds a lot like a leftover from the Things We Lost In The Fire or Trust sessions though this time the vocals aren't mixed low or hidden behind a veil of reverb and emotional distance. Now they're singing to you, not at you.

The true failing of C'mon, the thing that keeps me from falling head over heels in love with it, is that the songwriting just isn't there. There's an airy quality to tracks like 'Nightingale' and 'Done', barely there song structures which make more sense with further listens but still seem half-baked. This is ironic considering the four year gap between Drums and Guns and now; you'd think they'd have plenty of good stuff to choose from. This weakness ends up occurring in the middle stretch of the record, full of middling, forgettable material. It sounds lovely and nice while you're listening to it but it doesn't stick with you. This is also one of those rare cases where I think the shortness of a record hurts rather than helps. You're just starting to get into it when it draws to a close with 'Something's Turning Over', the kind of thing C'mon could've used more of, with strong-even-by-Low-standards close harmonies and retro “bah bah bah bah dah” backing vocals. The album's succinctness may leave Low with a strong EP or non-album single up their sleeve yet it leaves the listener with less cards on the table to play with.

True to its more pretty and direct nature, C'mon is full of music that gratifies a certain taste for immediate pleasure, a musical sweet tooth, if you will. Yet, like candy, it's quickly digested and doesn't leave enough of a lasting impression to qualify as true sustenance. There simply isn't enough here, or enough of enduring quality, to make this record as essential or fulfilling as Low's previous works.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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