Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Floating Above The Storm

The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Bella Union)

Many writers are comparing this with Fleet Foxes, if only because both acts are signed to Bella Union and the label is, rather understandably, looking to repeat that success. The two acts could be said to be alike in that they both deal in forms of modern American folk music, although that very broad umbrella is where the comparisons should end. There’s little of Fleet Foxes’ hippie mysticism or their chamber pop arrangements. Ostensibly, what The Low Anthem offer is closer to the tradition of Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams – narratives rich in pathos and with powerful, haunting melodies.

Of course, the group have their own spin on this sound, with Ben Knox Miller veering from a warm, ingratiating tenor to a more otherworldly falsetto. The latter is put to superb use on the opening ‘Charlie Darwin’, a simple but spectral and evocative piece that lingers long in the memory. On ‘Cage The Songbird’ he veers confidently between the two. With its rudimentary drum machine and synth pad backing, this actually sounds closer to Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel than to Crosby, Stills and Nash.

There are a couple of particularly beautiful story songs – ‘To Ohio’, which is so moving in its initial version that the reprise at the album’s conclusion fails to serve much purpose. Perhaps best of all is ‘Ticket Taker’, where Knox Miller husks a little more, almost in the manner of Leonard Cohen, a voice perfectly suited to the song’s humble central character (‘Mary Anne – I know I’m a long shot/But Mary Anne, what else have you got?’). The instrumentation is subtle and unusual, with multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams adding texture on clarinet and harmonium.

Where the band trip up, at least to my ears, is when Knox Miller adopts a whisky-soaked gravel growl, and the band attempt a rather clumsy hybrid of Tom Waits and The Pogues, driven by a relentless four to the floor bass drum beat. One of these tracks, ‘Home I’ll Never Be’, is actually a cover of Waits’ musical setting of Jack Kerouac. Given how well Waits has perfected this particular vocal style and the extent to which he has made it his own, emulating it seems rather futile. These tracks also jar substantially with the album’s predominant mood of melancholy reflection. They sound like the work of a completely different band. No doubt this tactic will have as many admirers as detractors, but I’m more taken with the group’s core sound than with their occasional lurch into drunken hoedowns.

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