w/ Mike Doughty, June 20, 8 p.m., $25, Spaceland Ballroom, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, manicproductions.org.
A series of drenched Connecticut spring days has forced me to realize — pace, Decemberists fans — there's no better rainy-day music than Low.
Not buying it? Compile every Low song you can find in a playlist, wait for clouds to roll in, hit shuffle and "star" every track that hits you. (When I did this, I ended up with a really high percentage of starred tracks.)
Since the early '90s, Low — Duluth, Minn. husband and wife duo Alan Sparhawk (guitar/vocals) and Mimi Parker (drums/vocals) and Steve Garrington (bass) — have released a couple dozen studio albums, EPs and live recordings; a couple hundred songs, with very few you'd want to toss overboard. The depth of this body of work would seemingly make it damn-near-impossible to come up with an hour-long set list.
"Usually if we have a record that's out, we'll be pretty excited about playing those tunes," Sparhawk told the Advocate by phone from his Duluth home. "But there's a lot of stuff we could play." There are between eight and 12 tunes they can play at the drop of a hat, with half the show comprised of older songs and half new. (Garrington, Low's bassist since 2008, is also adept at lobbying for deep cuts.) "You paint yourself into a weird corner," Sparhawk said. "It's sort of a running joke with us. At some point you break down and say, 'Do we know any songs?'... You can't see the forest from the trees."
There's a gentle intensity running through it all, and endearing tics: pointed two-part harmonies; Sparhawk pronouncing "Missouri" as "Misery" (on 1999's Secret Name); a preference for cleanly strummed electric-guitar (instead of an acoustic six-string); a penchant for two- or three-chord patterns circling back on themselves; songs that are more like fragments, played slowly enough to last four minutes.
And each track seems to hide something darker just below the water's surface. The slow-low "Condescend," from the 1997 EP Songs for a Dead Pilot, ends with a gurgling baby (a girl named Bethany Legge, who must be a teenager by now). On "Take Your Time," from 2007's Drums and Guns, Sparhawk's voice jumps into the ether, over one long, endless cloud of overdubbed vocals. "Plastic Cup," the opening track on the new album The Invisible Way, is an eight-line poem about finding a drug felon's pee cup a thousand years from now and mistaking it for a king's chalice. Crazy, sure, but the narrator's in on it; after some wordless cooing, it ends with an abrupt final chord, and a suggestion: "Maybe you should go out and write your own damn song, and move on."
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy produced The Invisible Way at his Chicago studio. "We've known those [Wilco] guys around six or seven years," said Sparhawk. "[Nels Cline] played in bands we would run across. We became friends. When he joined Wilco he kind of brought us in." (Cline played breathtaking guitar on the incredible tail-wags-dog ending of Low's "Nothing But Heart," from 2011's C'mon.)
Sparhawk went jogging with Tweedy a few times. Eventually he was invited to visit Tweedy's studio, "A casual sort of thing," he said, "a vague invitation... 'What does that mean?' so to speak." He sensed Tweedy was a good fit. "We knew Jeff had a good thing going," he said. "They've been working there for a long time. They know their gear. That's a lot of the draw with stuff: Steve Albini [who produced Low's 2001 Things We Lost in the Fire] knows his gear... Hearing and knowing that someone has their shit together is the find."
When we spoke, Low had just returned home after a European tour. (They'll go back again in the fall.) "We do well in England and Spain and other countries," Sparhawk said. "We were up in Scandinavia, Germany, France, we played the Jools Holland Show.. . You do a short live show and then you tape the longer segments." There's also a Low movie out there, How to Quit Smoking, by director Phil Harder, who's been shooting videos for the band for 20 years. The film premiered in April.
"We worked with [Harder] on some videos, and they just piled up over the years," Sparhawk said. "We were always getting together. We did our first videos with him, and some different projects and worked from time to time... It's a collage kind of build-up, a film that uses videos."
On Thursday, Low shares a bill with Mike Doughty at Hamden's Spaceland Ballroom.
"We used to do shows with [Doughty's former band] Soul Coughing," Sparhawk said. "They were really big fans early on and really nice to us. They took us under their wing a bit."