I don't have nearly the time to listen to music that I once did, so any new young artist has to elbow past the likes of Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones and R.E.M. to get in heavy rotation at my house. I try to keep up, but don't do nearly as well as the other 3 writers here, though often still manage to find new stuff that I like a lot. But few if any of them bore a hole in my soul.
But I have flipped over The Low Anthem. They first came to my attention through a music industry friend who knew my tastes and ordered me to go pick up their 2009 release Oh My God Charlie Darwin. It was my favorite release of that year. For me, it's always about the songs, the compositions themselves, and the Low Anthem write beautiful, rich, revealing and unique songs, my favorite on Charlie Darwin being "To Ohio", which Emmylou Harris will be recording on her next record.
So when I heard they had a new one coming, I was eager to hear it. Smart Flesh, recorded in an abandoned spaghetti sauce factory in their Providence RI hometown, is a bold, sweeping effort, full of quiet spaces, beautiful vocals, and unique multi-instrumentation, much of it played on old found instruments (pump organ, clarinet, fiddle, saw, dulcimer to name a few). It is hard to compare the Low Anthem's signature sound to anyone, but I do hear hints of the Band, Leonard Cohen and Vic Chesnutt, maybe not in any linear way but more for the thoughtful artistry and masterful writing.
While they are certainly not a rock band in any sense, they can turn it up when they want to. Two of the most immediate songs here are the noisy, fast-paced "Boeing 737" and "Hey All You Hippies" a catchy stomp that could have found a place in the Camper van Beethoven catalogue.
But it's the slow quiet material that defines the aptly named Low Anthem and leaves such an indelible impression.
"Matter of Time" with its haunting church organ sound, and the hushed somewhat odd "Burn" stand out in particular. And while it is easy to label them an Americana band due to the timeless somewhat rural feel here (despite their urban East Coast zip code), that doesn't really fit due to the relative lack of guitars and little in the way of a conventional singer-songwriter sound. But they do easily deliver up a couple perfectly crafted country folk songs like "Apothecary Love" and "I'll Take Out Your Ashes".
The video for lead track here "Ghost Woman Blues" sums them up well and shows the factory where they recorded, its high ceilings and empty spaces used to great effect here to create an expansive, vaguely mysterious sound.
Charlie Darwin continued to reveal itself over a year of frequent listens, and I suspect Smart Flesh will as well. Like a lot of my favorite artists, the Low Anthem require the listener to extend some effort too, but then richly reward you when you do.
This is a terrific record from an important new voice in American music. The Low Anthem deserve to be heard.
For more on the band and the recording of Smart Flesh, here's a link to an article from the New York Times.
Low Anthem Feature From NY Times: Feb 20, 2011