Providence, Rhode Island’s Low Anthem made small waves in 2009 with the existential ruminations of “Charlie Darwin” – a track that made for a stately introduction of the band’s folk/country/gospel M.O. while miraculously sidestepping any traces of nostalgic parody or old-timey schtick. Featuring a melody sung in a tender falsetto and vocal harmonies as rich as they were chilling, “Charlie Darwin” was a stirring testimony to the emotive intensity of acoustic music, most famously championed in recent years by indie folk revivalists like Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes. The Low Anthem’s debut record (which also gave nod to the famed English naturalist in its title) turned out to be a more raucous affair than its lead single would suggest, however; the album had its fair share of introspection-prizing slowburners, but they were apportioned with blustery foot stompers that were startlingly assured.
To record its follow-up LP, Ben Knox Miller, Jocie Adams, Mat Davidson, and Jeff Prystowsky set up shop for three months last winter in a Central Falls, RI abandoned pasta sauce factory. The building’s ramshackle condition and ghostly ambience seemed like a natural fit for the group’s aesthetics, which revel in antiquated instruments (pump organ, melodeon, jaw harp) and soulful meditations about the roads we’ve traveled. The resulting album, Smart Flesh, utilizes the crumbling warehouse as an instrument all its own, eschewing the frenzied material from Oh My God, Charlie Darwin for a song cycle whose undulating minimalism is all the more pronounced thanks to the cavernous environs in which it was recorded. Less is indeed more, as it turns out.
Of its eleven tracks, only two Smart Flesh numbers even come close to the jagged and unpredictable terrain of its predecessor. “Boeing 737” is a rousing allegory of the September 11th attacks, brass instruments blaring like sirens and drums pounding unrelentingly while Miller sings, “I was in the air when the towers came down / in a bar on the 84th floor.” On Side B is where you’ll find “Hey, All You Hippies!” – a tongue-in-cheek rocker set to strummy guitars and tremolo-affected electric organ that lends the tune a loose jam band vibe. Like most Low Anthem songs, the narrative is as compelling as the musicianship: “Here comes Ronald Reagan o’er the Hollywood Hills / it doesn’t look like he’s fooling around / you know how they feel / you’re hip to the steel.”
The remainder of the album is set at a gentle simmer, allowing core components of the group’s sound – Jocie Adams’ clarinet, Miller’s Dylan-esque rasp, plaintive guitar melodies, and those ebullient group harmonies – space to roam in the giant chasms afforded by their makeshift recording studio.
Beginning the album with a cover of George Carter’s “Ghost Woman Blues” imparts a spectral milieu almost immediately, as nothing but a doleful piano chord progression and the intertwined vocals of Miller and Adams reverberate across the panorama. Despite the appearance of a harmonium, nylon-string guitar, and trumpet, the texture is eerily thin but no less moving. “Love and Altar” is one of the LP’s most intimate and exhilarating tunes, where dual falsetto vocals and reticent guitar chords float into the ether. It’s an arresting moment on an album full of them, and the ace lyrics (“To love is to pay / lay your wealth upon the altar”) add plenty of gravitas to a song which would otherwise feel weightless. Jocie Adams’ training as a classical composer and performer is the focal point on “Wire,” another standout track in which the group’s penchant for bruised and battered melancholia is realized by just three overdubbed clarinet parts.
Anyone aware of the Low Anthem’s back catalogue knows they can rock when they want to, but a true clarion call comes through on the pensive ballads and understated blues that are the foundation of their sophomore LP. Smart Flesh won’t grab you with big hooks or infectious grooves, but listen long enough, and it’ll sink its teeth right in to you.