The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (2009)

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by Pico

The last time I covered a band out of Providence RI, I was thunderstruck by the wonderfully weird folks who make up the musical buffet table Barnacled. On the other end of the spectrum but in the same seaside New England town hails an folk-rock outfit called The Low Anthem. So what is their music like? You can sometimes tell a lot about a band by the instruments they keep. The Low Anthem lists these as their traveling companions on their mySpace page:
1 WWI portable pump organ
1 ’73 Gibson J-50
3/4 scrapmetal drumkit
2 clarinets
1 German upright bass
1 alto (E flat) Horn
crotales
1 Salvation Army electric
enough harmonicas to summon a swarm of locusts

That should tell you this is no electronica dance band, but that long list of tools betrays the fact that it’s just a trio: Ben Knox Miller, Jeffrey Prystowsky and Jocie Adams. Although the CD sleeve doesn’t reveal who is playing what (probably because anybody could be playing just about anything), from my sources I’ve gathered that Miller performs lead vocals, Eb horn, harmonica, pump organ and guitar. Prystowsky is a jazz bassist, so naturally he handles the low end, as well as pump organ, drums and vocals. Adams plays crotales, cello, clarinet, cello, and guitar, along with some vocals.

They use all these tools to craft songs that sound as if these tunes have been around forever, when in fact nearly all are fresh originals written by a young trio who could have easily gone down the path of alt-rock but opted for something much more timeless. Often, they’re evoking Dylan and The Band, and that’s when they’re sounding more contemporary; other times they reach back further, to the spirit of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger (and Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Session). Moreover, this kind of folk has blues, vintage country and gospel liberally mixed in.

Playing simple songs in a traditional manner can sound ordinary or the can sound majestic; the difference is in the poignancy the musicians give to these songs. That’s where The Low Anthem excels most of all. Nothing ever comes across as forced or premeditated; these guys bathe in the hallowed music that they play, with all the sincerity and reverence that the Old Style deserves but gets too little of these days.

It begins with Miller’s staggering voice. His heavenly falsetto on the lightly accompanied “Charlie Darwin” can make a grown man break down in tears. That’s no exaggeration. The very next song, “To Ohio” he gives a very credible low register performance, and lower still on “Ticket Taker.” Miller transforms into a hell-raising growler on the stompers “The Horizon Is A Beltway” and Tom Waits’ “Home I’ll Never Be.”

The lyrics are often of timeless elegance, too. Take for instance the laid back reassurance provided in “Don’t Tremble”:

If your pilot light should die
Do not quake and do not bark
You will find the spark

If your tree should bare no fruit
Do not turn and do not spill
You are beautiful

If your clarinet should break
Do not cry a million lakes
Do not cry a million lakes

The band’s limitless flexibility on instruments gives them a distinct advantage of arranging songs in any way their imagination will take them. Sometimes only an acoustic guitar, mandolin, standup bass, and some fine harmonies are needed (“OMGCD”), sometimes there’s actually a conventional rock band getup (“Champion Angel”), and other times a little pump organ, light percussion, and some angelic church choir singing does the trick, as in the sublime “Cage The Songbird.” Nobody really solos much, they always play in the service of the songs. When the songs are that good and rendered so well, solos are not needed. The Low Anthem understands that.

A lot of rock bands get started in a garage. Like those garage bands, The Low Anthem takes a direct, honest approach to their music, but their origins could be found well outside the garage and out in the heart of rural America, circa mid-twentieth century. It’s Americana done so well that Oh My God, Charlie Darwin makes me eager to see a sequel done to the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? movie, just so The Low Anthem could do the soundtrack the next time around.

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, originally released on an indie label, was re-released on the Nonsuch label this past June 9.

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