There's an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere to much of The Low Anthem's follow-up to 2009's enchanting Oh My God, Charlie Darwin that's due in large part to the circumstances of its recording, the band opting to use a deserted factory in Rhode Island in preference to a more soulless professional studio environment.
It has its advantages and disadvantages: rather than simply draining away into acoustic baffles, the vocal and piano of a track such as "Ghost Woman Factory" acquire a distinctive life of their own as they reverberate back off the walls, as if shadowed by their own ghosts; but elsewhere, on "Love and Altar", the high-register vocal harmonies are not recorded with adequate clarity to maximise their impact: the ghosts overpower their hosts, and it's hard to make out what's happening, between the feathery sibillance and the wan guitar setting.
It's when they move away from the Fleet Foxes-style hymnal harmonies, however, that the location comes into its own. On "Hey, All You Hippies!", the rough'n'ready guitar and organ have a rooted, grainy texture akin to The Band, while the cavernous reverb undoubtedly lends an extra weary poignancy to the crepuscular woodwind instrumental "Wire". Now expanded to a quartet, The Low Anthem's textural palette is broader than ever on Smart Flesh, with pump organ, lap steel guitar and lonesome harmonica bringing the country waltz "Apothecary Love" to vivid life, jew's harp and vibrato guitar instilling the interior tremors of the title-track, and clarinet and piano conjuring the funereal grace within the enigmatic "Golden Cattle", which seems to extend the doubting theological reflections of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
Elsewhere, love, death and regret stalk these songs like lost souls seeking their final rest – quite literally in the case of "I'll Take Out Your Ashes", where plaintive banjo accompanies a widower's apology to his wife's cremated remains: "It's a sad and prideful feeling/ Since I did not drive you to Michigan/ Scrambling eggs and bacon/ You're right here in the kitchen". Or perhaps it's just her memory he's addressing? The sad plunk of banjo also backdrops "Burn", along with wheezing organ, tambourine and the spooky whine of bowed saw, combining to create a lilting, self-lacerating fatalism that recalls Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat", the protagonist belatedly realising he's the source of his own emotional deprivation. In both these songs, he could be dealing with the aftermath of that earlier encounter with the phantom woman searching for a home in "Ghost Woman Factory".
The only mis-step on the album is "Boeing 737", a pounding, splashy stomp whose brash incoherence perhaps disguises a commentary on the twin towers attacks. It seems brutish and crude set alongside the rest of the album, which otherwise has the kind of stylistic and atmospheric unity that reminds one of what albums can offer that no other format can match.
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