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Life with Low:
David Kleijwegt's Portrait of the Band Low: The Stop Smiling DVD Review

The Stop Smiling DVD Review

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

By Michael Ardaiolo


Alan Sparhawk sits alone, guitar in hand, staring into the distance from his perch on a weatherworn wooden staircase somewhere in rural Minnesota. He strums innately, his thinning, shaggy hair rustling gently above his fatigued eyes. Though conservatively attired, he exudes the life of a world traveler, one who has seen and heard a lot and spends most of his time trying to sort it all out. Though you don’t hear documentarian David Kleijwegt actually say it, it’s obvious he just fired the question all artists are asked about their craft: “Why?” Sparhawk’s initial answer is simply a guitar lick. “It’s almost a license to not have to put everything in order,” he finally replies. “It’s so sturdy, it’s so resilient. You can do so much to it, and it’s still beautiful and still perfect and so much bigger than you are. It still comes back at you forgiving. Loving.”

You May Need a Murderer is billed as “a portrait of the band Low,” but the story revealed is the personality of guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Alan Sparhawk: the rock star and the parent of two young children; the devout Mormon and the political critic; the poet and the philosopher. The picture Kleijwegt paints of the Minnesota native is one of intense focus, constant questioning and frustrating resentment for most of what’s happening in the world. It’s not an especially unheard of personality for many educated and seasoned men entering the reflective period of middle-age, though Sparhawk just happens to front one of independent rock’s most revered bands, which gives him both the means to convey his feelings to the public and the responsibility of being subject to these suspicious listeners.

Low was formed during the early Nineties in reaction to the heavily distorted world of grunge that was then in full bloom. With his wife — drummer, co-songwriter and angelic vocalist Mimi Parker — and a series of other collaborators, Low created fragile and austere songs with a minimalist attitude and a penchant for moving vocal harmonies that would eventually be pigeonholed as “slowcore.” Eight proper full-lengths and a slew of live albums, EPs and other compilation tracks for the likes of Vernon Yard, Kranky and, most recently, Sub Pop, has earned the band with a worldwide fan base, as well as respect from critics. The music, like that of Sparhawk’s revealed personality, builds dramatic tension with patience and occasionally uncomfortable absence of sound. When something does happen — whether it’s a guitar solo or a revealing thought from Sparhawk himself — the sound is amplified in emotion, sincerity and wisdom.

The emotional weight of a Low song is in the lyrics — roadside poems of observation and fatigue with echoes of religious belief — but the vocal harmonies are what capture the music fans’ attention. It becomes a catalyst for accepting the typically bleak stories as beautiful human experiences rather than the exhaustion of conscious human life. “I don’t think I’m a talented singer,” Sparkhawk confesses. “I’m sort of just a person who sings, and just so happens I’ve had to sing a lot in the last 14 or 15 years. So eventually I figured out how to hold pitch, at least some of the time. I think Mim [sic] is gifted right out of the box, she can sing and has the ear for harmony. Her voice is immediately there without having to figure it out. She doesn’t practice.” And then, in one of the very few times during the 70-minute film, he laughs.

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