Album: The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Bella Union)
Friday 12 June 2009
Formed a couple of years ago at Rhode Island's venerable Brown University, folk-rock trio the Low Anthem first drew significant attention with the single "Charlie Darwin", which leads off this fascinating second album.
It's a gorgeous, fragile piece of work which has drawn comparison with Fleet Foxes, as singer Ben Knox Miller's haunting falsetto sketches the concerns and expectations of a religious refugee setting sail for the new world, anachronistically wondering, "Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin / Fighting for a system built to fail?"
Lured into anticipating more of the same, however, one might be blind-sided by the album, which extends the single's intriguing ruminations on life, love, death and religion. For one thing, that high, lonesome chorister vocal is never heard again with such purity; instead, Miller adopts either a gentle, intimate murmur or a rasping R&B growl which is probably intended as a fanciful take on Tom Waits' insouciant boho charm, but actually sounds more like Barry McGuire awaiting the eve of destruction with a bad case of laryngitis. This is particularly the case on the grunge-guitar grind of "Champion Angel", stuffed with faux-Dylanesque imagistic impenetrability in the service of disenchantment, and on banjo stompers like "Home I'll Never Be" and "The Horizon is a Beltway", their raw, revivalist tone matched by elemental imagery like "the horizon is a beltway, and the skyline's on fire".
The impression of a small but pious congregation extends in different directions elsewhere, most notably the titular "OMGCD", a revivalist anthem whose afterlife concerns about "knowing where I'm going when I go" sit awkwardly with its sympathetic attitude to Darwin, a dialectic perhaps designed to illuminate the creationist/evolutionist debate.
Miller's more murmurous vocals, meanwhile, are best employed in secular hymns such as "Ticket Taker" and "(Don't) Tremble", the latter a comforting lilt of acoustic guitar and ambient birdsong offering solace for the soulless: "If your pilot light should die, do not quake and do not bark – you will find a spark".
Musically, the trio draw on a range of Americana strategies, from the brooding drone of harmonium and lowing horns that imbues such a sense of loss in "To the Ghosts Who Write History Books", to the innocent plink of music-box in the instrumental "Music Box", and the earthier string-band stomps mentioned earlier. It all combines to create a fascinating impression of another young American band in search of those traditional values of fellowship and free debate abandoned during the Bush years.
Download this: 'Charlie Darwin', 'To Ohio', 'To the Ghosts Who Write History Books', '(Don't) Tremble', 'The Horizon is a Beltway'
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