Low has always impressed me with their ability to make the most lethargic melody haunting and beautiful, to take the simplest phrase and harmony and turn it into something that just hits you in the heart. On their newest release, The Curtain Hits the Cast, they stick to their tried and true formula of playing the most sedate pop music one can imagine. On paper, their music shouldn’t work. Guitars, bass, minimal drums, and vocals shouldn’t be able to make cohesive music that slow and sparse. However, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s beautifully melancholy vocal harmonies and Sparhawk’s masterful guitarplaying make it work.
The album opens up with “Anon”, which reminds me somewhat of The Cure’s Pornography album, with it’s heavy, almost ominous bassline and swirling feedback. “The Plan” and “Over The Ocean” feature two of the most beautiful melodies Low has ever written. The latter almost brought me to tears with its tender male/female vocal harmonies. Sparhawk and Parkers’ harmonies are perhaps the most beautiful element of Low’s sound. This adds a dash of sunlight to the wintry lands that their music conjures up.
Most of the songs creep along at a snails pace and gradually build to a climax, as in “Standby” where the song culminates in Sparhawk’s delicate, weary vocals floating among the building guitars. “Mom Says” has Sparhawks’ falsetto vocals at their weariest, perfectly open and vulnerable. How a voice can be that tired and weary and yet stirring is yet one more of Low’s strengths.
However, all of the songs on The Curtain Hits the Cast — with the possible exception of “The Plan” and “Over The Ocean” — pale when compared to the 14-minute long “Do You Know How To Waltz”. This song is the masterpiece of the album, a long, slowly building of guitar and bass drone and sparse, trickling piano lines. The song just builds from silence and hovers there, drawing you into the looping sounds while a fluid bassline pushes it along. It’s effect is slightly eerie and disturbing, and overpowering.
For all of my raving, it did take me awhile to get into it. Perhaps because the Low’s sparse formula, however good it may be, is wearing a little thin. Imagining the soft swell of a cello with their vocal harmonies gives me the shivers. But until then, The Curtain Hits the Cast is a masterpiece of minimal pop. Noone plays it better than Low. I listened to this album while returning home from Christmas break. The entire countryside was covered with a winter fog; everything turned ghostly and pale, the trees looking like ghosts and passing cars disappeared before you could really get a look at them. Looking back, I can think of nothing that suited the mood better.