Categories
4 Stars Music

Low live at Mercury Lounge, New York – September 22, 2008

I hope I’m totally wrong, but I picked up on a few hints that this latest tour by Low might mark the end of the band. My half-baked evidence:

  1. Alan Sparhawk seems to be having success with new side project, the Retribution Gospel Choir.
  2. This tour is not in support of a new album release.
  3. The shows were marketed as “An Evening With Low,” lingo for shows with no opening acts. Pitchfork reported that Low would be playing extra-long sets.
  4. Sparhawk himself told the Mercury Lounge audience to settle in for a long night, and ominously said a “retrospective” show is like the proverbial “nail in the coffin.”
  5. Bassist Matt Livingston has left the band after a relatively short tenure, replaced by Steve Garrington.
  6. David Kleijwgt’s 2008 documentary You May Need a Murderer had a notably more frank and final tone compared to the 2004 Low in Europe. Could Low be preparing their legacy?
  7. I read later that on September 13, at the End of the Road Festival in Dorset, Sparhawk flung his guitar into the crowd. As seen in You May Need a Murderer, Sparkhawk has some issues with his mental health. Whether it was an act of rage or elation remains an object of debate online.

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong, and one of my favorite bands will continue on. Recent albums The Great Destroyer and Drums & Guns were both great leaps forward, and as a listener I see no reason why the band can’t keep evolving.

Some little anecdotes of the evening:

  1. The first half of the set was acoustic (albeit using an array of electronic devices), and Sparhawk switched to an electric guitar for the second half. Garrington used an upright acoustic bass throughout.
  2. Mimi Parker stated that the evening’s rendition of “Dragonfly” could have been called “Dragging-fly” Sparhawk agreed, admitting it was a “Extra Dragging-fly.”
  3. Low debuted a sequel to their classic Low Christmas EP: “Santa’s Coming Over,” soon to be released on vinyl and digitally. Its the first example of self-parody by Low that I’m aware of. The Low Christmas EP is actually somberly beautiful, but in “Santa is Coming” Sparhawk sings patently silly lyrics in full doom-and-gloom melodramatic slowcore style. Perhaps I should have filed this note in my list of “half-baked evidence” above…
Low live at Mercury Lounge
Alan Sparhawk & Steve Garrington live at Mercury Lounge, NY (I could barely see Mimi Parker from where I was standing)
Categories
3 Stars Movies Music

Low get political in David Kleijwegt’s You May Need a Murderer

It may seem overkill for the so-called slowcore band Low to be the subject of another documentary feature film only a mere four years after Low in Europe, but it must be because they’re just so interesting. Filmmaker David Kleijwegt’s You May Need a Murderer could just as well be titled Low in America, as he speaks with founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker at home in Duluth, Minnesota, and on tour across America in support of the Drums & Guns album. The key characteristics of that record are what most inform the film: Sparhawk’s mood post-nervous breakdown, and Low’s most overtly expressed social and political commentary yet. Low had also just adopted a new bass player, Matt Livingston, after Zak Sally’s long tenure, but he does not participate (he’s only barely glimpsed, even in live onstage footage).

You May Need a Murderer is a much more satisfying film overall than Low in Europe. Whether by their own desire to open up or by Kleijwegt’s persuasive interview skills, Sparhawk and Parker are notably more candid and direct, especially on the topic of their faith. Which is exactly what one would single out as the most interesting thing about Low: Sparhawk and Parker are a married Mormon couple that that tithe a tenth of all their income to the church. I suppose Low might belong in that rare category of bands whose music is often characterized by religious beliefs, like the often overtly Christian U2, but would never be filed under “Inspirational” in record stores. Unlike U2’s joyous hymns and optimistic calls to activism, Low’s inspirations are considerably more dark and apocalyptic.

Low You May Need a Murderer

When Low gets political they do so with a vengeance. Sparhawk is in despair over America’s economy and politics, and has long believed that the world may reach a crisis point in his lifetime (he stops short of predicting it will actually “end”). Sparhawk’s genuine beliefs gives him the real authority to criticize George W. Bush’s claim to faith. The title song “You May Need a Murderer” is sung from the point of view of one who goes before his god and asks to be used as a warrior. It becomes clear that the speaker is in effect staring into a mirror, bringing his own baggage to an imaginary conversation, and justifying his own dark impulses. Sparhawk is, needless to say, talking about self-proclaimed men of faith like Bush and Tony Blair. The song is utterly terrifying, and raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time. It may be the ultimate statement on the topic, and does not compare favorably to the similarly-themed song by Bright Eyes, “When the President Talks to God.”

The most surprising personal topic to come up is Sparhawk’s apparent nervous breakdown in 2005. We see Sparhawk appearing very nervous backstage before a show, but otherwise functional. But he describes himself as having been “clinically delusional” at the point of his breakdown, and while having nominally recovered, he also cops to being a drug addict. To him, the biggest conflict these two aspects of his life have is with his religion.


Must Read: The Speed of Silence review

Must Read: PopMatters review

Categories
3 Stars Movies Music

Sebastian Schrade’s tour documentary Low in Europe

I came late to appreciating Low, but they have since become one of my favorite bands. I was vaguely aware that trainspotting music critics had christened a new genre to categorize bands like Low: slowcore, the distinguishing characteristics of which being playing very quietly and slowly (an overgeneralization, it turns out, but it never hurts to be famous for something unique). “Venus,” a free promotional MP3 from A Lifetime of Temporary Relief given away on Amazon.com, lived in rotation on my iPod for some time, and finally convinced me to buy the 2005 album The Great Destroyer. I first saw them live in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool in 2006, supporting Iron & Wine (whom I like well enough, but if you ask me it should have been the other way around). Even in direct sunlight, their music is beautiful and engrossingly enigmatic.

Director Sebastian Schrade’s documentary Low in Europe was filmed on their 2002-2003 tour of Europe, before they wrote and recorded my two favorite albums of theirs: The Great Destroyer and Drums and Guns. It’s part concert film and part documentary, but not enough of each. There are no complete musical performances included, and although the principals are all intelligent and interesting, the fact is the interviews are sometimes a little less than gripping.

Low in Europe

The band first expresses their ambivalence about operating within the commercial music industry. They address their reputation for slow tempos and low volume with good humor; in their early days, they played really slow, in the fuck-you avant-garde spirit but not the loud ‘n’ sloppy letter of punk, to antagonize and challenge the audience. Their contrary nature extends to their personal lives: principal members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, practicing Mormons and a longtime married couple, tour with their children and view it as a simplified and focused way of life. This came as something of a surprise to this Dork Reporter, whom feels perhaps he had a heretofore undiscovered prejudice that Mormons couldn’t be rock stars.

The heavily-documented Low can be further investigated on the three documentary shorts included with the A Lifetime of Temporary Relief boxed set, and on the forthcoming You May Need a Murderer, a new doc coming out June 3.