Friday, July 31, 2009

Album of the Week: The Low Anthem "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin"

One of the benefits of crafting these weekly album reviews is that I have become much more conscious of the waxing and waning of my musical tastes. When the year began, I was deeply into pop, the more confection, the better. I still am, and this year's Camera Obscura album, the Suckers EP, and the Afternoon Naps Sunbeamed disc are among the handful of CDs that have stayed in my vehicle for months, as other personal fads come and go. As the winter thawed, I found myself getting more into challenging stuff, particularly work by Sholi, Yeasayer, Menomena, Akron/Family, and Abe Vigoda. Eventually, I went through a lo-fi period, listening almost daily to bands like Crocodiles and Wavves, though by the time I finally snagged a copy of the Japandroids album, I could tell that phase was over.

Lately, though, all I've wanted is subtle beauty, with maybe some interesting new sounds or particularly bright lyrics. I've loved albums by The Horse's Ha and Cheval Sombre, and have been salivating over advance copies of forthcoming releases by Ramona Falls, Mount Eerie, and Jessie Torrisi. Each and every one of these last few is wonderful and I'll definitely post reviews of each of them within the next several weeks. (You can already read my review of The Horse's Ha album here.) Currently, however, atop this heap of lovely has been The Low Anthem's Oh My God, Charlie Darwin release.

A relatively young band, The Low Anthem formed in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2006 through Brown University college radio. The Ivy League influence is present in their sound, if only through the earnestness and lyrical heft that characterizes the band's output. The band currently works as a trio, with all three members sharing instrumental duties on just about every instrument you can imagine being involved in a serious indie folk outfit.

The tracks on the album - or rather, some of the tracks on the album and the general sequencing of the whole thing - however, are not what you'd imagine. Indeed, the album begins with its most widely circulated track, "Charlie Darwin," which while beautiful and harrowing and fragile is also a very poor introduction to the rest of the record. Not because it is a poor song - absolutely not, it is tremendous - but because it is so different than the bulk of what will follow.

"Charlie Darwin" caught fire after being plugged earlier in the spring by NPR's Bob Boilen. In fact, that's how I first heard it, listening to his All Songs Considered podcast from my iphone as I drift off to sleep. Every so often (or, actually, just about every week), Boilen comes up with a track that stops my fade into slumber in its tracks and forces me to backtrack to see what precocious artist created this new thing of joy. "Charlie Darwin" was just such a track and it immediately went in my mental reservoir. I wasn't sure I would like an entire album of the song's approach, however, with its falsetto vocals and sad seriousness, and didn't pursue investigation into the rest of The Low Anthem's catalog any further.

Let me tell you - that was a mistake. It was only when I saw the band was coming through town (August 5 at the Grog Shop) that I decided to give the LP an entire listen. Immediately following album-opener "Charlie Darwin" the band goes straight to more traditional folk territory in "To Ohio," but keeps with it the loveliness imbued in the opener. (For the record, the loveliness is there all the while.)

"To Ohio" is followed by one of my two favorite tracks on the album, "Ticket Taker," which strikes me as what one would get if you mixed Sunken Treasures era Jeff Tweedy with Tom Waits. The song carries what is to me a relentlessly pragmatic romantic pitch ("Mary Anne, I know I'm a long shot/But Mary Anne, what else have you got?/I am a ticket taker, many tickets have I torn/And I will be your arc, we will float above the storm"). The simplicity of the song combined with the self-assured economics of love crooned by the narrator just slays me.

By the next track, "The Horizon is a Beltway," the Tweedy influence has been dropped and the listener finds himself confronted with a straight-up Tom Waits hoe-down sing along with some deeper Nick Cave narrative visuals (i.e., jawbones, fires, abandoned homes, etc.) and energizing choral belts ("The skyline is on fire, the skyline is on fire/The horizon is a beltway and the skyline is on fire"). Anyone who would be tempted with considering The Low Anthem simply fine masters of copying another artist's (namely Waits) style is immediately stymied, as the group don't hesitate to salute directly their inspiration. In fact, the very next track is a cover of Waits's "Home I'll Never Be," with the ageless bar jam (originally penned by New Yorker cum Californian Jack Kerouac) played with a mid-south stomp, stolen by the ever-present harmonica.

Just as the grit has you almost forgetting about the restrained falsetto prelude that greeted you at the outset, the upper register returns in "Cage the Songbird," along with some musical refrains reminiscent of "Charlie Darwin." (Really, there are parts in just about every song where you hear feints and cues resembling the initial track.) The song is followed by my personal favorite selection on the album, "(Don't Tremble)." An old-fashioned song of love and reassurance, this song makes me well up. If I were the type of guy that, upon the altar of marriage, were to craft his own vows, I'd be tempted to steal the lyrics of this song and hope against hope I never burned this album as a gift to my betrothed whilst we were a-courting.

The next tune is an extended melodic interlude, which gives you time to catch your breath, and about the time you realize that the track is titled "Music Box" because much of the melody on it comes from an actual music box, you are greeted by the growling guitar licks that begin "Champion Angel." This song might be the one tune that feels to me like it just doesn't fit on this album. It is all indie rock take on Springsteen, a far cry from the alternating between plaintive and Waits that you are, by this point, accustomed to on Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.

The ill fit disappears as soon as the song ends, replaced by a much more consistent "To The Ghosts Who Write History Books." This song features some of the more noteworthy lyrics of the album ("To them ghosts in the train yard/All them ghosts in my drink/Your money's no good here/Just write one about me"). Nothing here is too precious or smart, but just clear and concise - the best way to evoke the spirit The Low Anthem seems intent on achieving. Just as the harmonica stole the track on the Waits cover earlier, the organ on this tune makes the song, and possibly the album.

Not content to leave things on a melancholy note, the band brings us "omgcd" (hint: it is an acronym), a sing along complete with handclaps and banjo (or is it ukulele?). Close your eyes as you listen and you might think you are at the final evening campfire of some twenty and thirty-somethings indie rock summer camp, watching the embers twist as you reflect on the week of conversations about Neutral Milk Hotel and 19th Century evolutionary theory and hold hands with the damaged girl with colorful sleeve tattoos. Despite the nomenclatural similarities, "omgcd" is entirely distinct in sound and spirit from "Charlie Darwin," just as the album's closing track, a reprise of "To Ohio," is distinct from the initial version of that song. The closing track possesses a chuggier, less ethereal reality to it, a sense of accomplishment perhaps, and just as that idea begins to make sense to you, the song, and with it the album, fades nicely and quickly out.

As I stated at the outset, this album is beautiful. That's an overused word in our culture, almost to the point of meaningless, but when you think about what the word means and then you listen to this album, you'll see why there isn't one better. There aren't many bands that can pull together so comfortably Waits and grace (or, for that matter, make me say pleasant things about Jeff Tweedy), but The Low Anthem does it, and for that I am, as a music fan, grateful. Check out the album, but more importantly, check out the band as they make an appearance on Wednesday, August 5th, at the Grog Shop. Also on the bill are April Smith & the Great Picture Show AND Chicagoan Joe Pug, who my pal Roger tells me was pretty awesome last time he came through town. Sounds like a great night out all the way around!

1 comment:

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