The Low Anthem cover all their Americana bases with Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, an album that alternates between old-timey country, secular gospel, and harmonized folk. Few bands handle such wide swaths of music with grace, and even fewer manage to steer clear of sepia-toned pastiche in the process. Charlie Darwin is that rare exception, a hybrid of old traditions and contemporary flourishes that sounds at once earthy, ethereal, and uncalculated.
Gorgeous melodies adorn this album of country-tinged classical sounds and philosophical concerns. The Low Anthem is known to Rolling Stone and NPR for their earlier record What The Crow Brings. If we are tempted to hold that against them, we shouldn’t, as here again they achieve the difficult task of writing simple, memorable songs on which uncluttered vocals survive harsh examination.
Obscure US folk act; picked up by Bella Union; sound as though they recorded in a cabin in the middle of a forest ... Sound familiar? Yes, the label is clearly trying to pull off the Fleet Foxes trick again. However, while the Foxes hail from urban Seattle, the Low Anthem really did record this album in a log cabin, in the bleak Block Island winter in the state of Rhode Island.
While enjoying the acclaim heaped upon finally-made-it Brooklynites Grizzly Bear, it’s been frustrating to read that so many mainstream music journalists attribute this success to the influence of Fleet Foxes. Animal incompatibility aside, most Grizzly Bear fans know that this is a fallacy, because the Bears have been making albums at least three years ahead of the Foxes, and if anything were amongst the first to hone that layered, Sixties-influenced vocal sound. Still, the music industry deserves to bask in Fleet Foxes’ success.
The Low Anthem's Oh My God, Charlie Darwin might begin with hollowed, harmonized croons fronted by a stunning falsetto in the opener "Charlie Darwin," but don't be fooled: By the fourth track, "The Horizon is a Beltway," the Providence-based trio is knee deep in gravelly vocals, roaring harmonica runs, and shouted choruses. From there it's on to what sounds like trashcan crashes in a howling rendition of "Home I'll Never Be" (written by Jack Kerouac and originally performed by Tom Waits). Soon after the chaos, though, the set pares down to a soothing guitar-and-harmonica combo in the love song "(Don't Tremble)," where frontman Ben Knox Miller earnestly sings, "If your heart is unemployed/Do not rush but do not stall/For I am waiting.
Just when it seems that indie Americana has devoured most of the indigenous territory at its disposal, the Low Anthem rises from the underbrush. Reissued by Nonesuch, the Rhode Island trio's 2008 sophomore disc evolves with sequencing that emphasizes the album's ability to trek equally compelling through stark haunted valleys and raucously stomped hillsides. Secular hymn "Charlie Darwin" opens with frontman Ben Knox Miller trilling a gentle Fleet Foxes falsetto but slowly drifts darker through "To Ohio" and the Leonard Cohen-esque "Ticket Taker.
THE LOW ANTHEM “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” (Nonesuch) The Low Anthem ponders eternity in God-haunted, bipolar Americana: hymns and stomps. It’s a three-member band from Providence, R.I., that plays nearly a dozen instruments, among them banjo, E flat horn and clarinet, creating an atmosphere that’s old-timey but not vintage. The lyrics are too splintered and abstract for that.