Release Date: Feb 22, 2011
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Country, Folk, Alt-Country, Americana, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Neo-Traditional Folk, Indie Folk
This Rhode Island band plays despairing songs at crippled-spirit speed, in stridently antique tones: long sighs of pump organ; the soprano warble of a bowed saw; the rusted-Leonard Cohen whisper of singer-songwriter Ben Knox Miller. Smart Flesh is also magnificent sadness. The Low Anthem render the ghosts and damaged souls in these songs with delicate precision — the swirling pedal steel guitar in "Apothecary Love," the pregnant spaces and sternly strummed banjo in "I'll Take Out Your Ashes" — steeped in echo.
Soft-spoken stories that’ll stop you in your tracks Let’s start with what Smart Flesh—The Low Anthem’s follow-up to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin—is not. This is not the kind of album you put on to create a little ambience when you’ve got friends over, nor is it the sort of thing you’d reach for if you’re looking to bust a move. It’s not something you’d put on in the background while you’re doing the dishes.
While scoping out locations for their third album, the Low Anthem stumbled across a vacant pasta sauce factory in Central Falls, RI. For a band whose instruments include WWII-era pump organs and other antique items, the factory -- with its label-strewn floors, big empty spaces, and semi-crumbling appearance -- must’ve felt like home. And it was home, at least for the three winter months in which the Low Anthem took up temporary residence inside the place, recording the bulk of their third album with Charlie Darwin producer Jesse Lauter.
This Rhode Island quartet maximizes the impact of minimal gestures. The band treats its recording studio — a vacant pasta-sauce factory — like a musical accomplice, extracting shiver-inducing echoes, moans, and whispers. Exotic instruments blend to create muted tonal colors, and rough-hewn voices tell stories of longing and mortality. Smart Flesh is a quiet, modest success, if a bit monochrome.
If the Low Anthem had recorded Smart Flesh in a conventional studio, it might not have sounded like much. At heart this is a dustily traditional collection of folk songs, their straightforward rhythms and plain instrumentation intermittently embellished with musical saw and pump organ, their lyrics of loss, redemption and death occasionally startling, with such vivid imagery as that of "a Bible in a bath of formaldehyde". But the Rhode Island quartet didn't record it in a conventional studio: they holed up in a disused factory, whose cavernous architecture makes every note thrum as though transmitted to the living world from some eerie limbo inhabited by spirits and shadows.
Following the massive success of Fleet Foxes, there was a hum of anticipation amongst bearded plaid-shirt wearers when their UK label Bella Union began to talk about their next backwoods-folk signing from the USA, Rhode Island quartet The Low Anthem. Mixing hushed, plaintive tracks with more abrasive, Tom Waitsian explorations, their debut album for the label Oh My God, Charlie Darwin managed the impressive feat of satisfying those looking for a new gang of introspective troubadours, whilst also marking The Low Anthem out as bunch with their own musical perspective, not afraid to pull in many directions in the search for inspiration. So, as they return with Smart Flesh, The Low Anthem have their own swirl of anticipation building around them, and they’ve once again found a distinct direction to head towards rather than following in anyone else’s footsteps, or the ones they’re already tread.
Having listened to some great music of late, mostly created in artists’ bedrooms, Smart Flesh, the new offering from Providence, RI, quartet The Low Anthem signals a departure of sorts. It was originally recorded in an abandoned sauce factory down the road in Central Falls, and later on the studio moved to another large garage-like space. These empty, seemingly cavernous settings pervade the record and add a kind of alien chill to the proceedings.
The Low Anthem’s 2008 debut, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, never really got the recognition it deserved. There was a kind of nostalgic timelessness to parts of that record, like the band had tapped into something the hippie movement missed. But perhaps what prevented it from being truly great were the two very distinct sides to the music that made it feel a little disjointed.
Considering that they turned their previous album, 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, into a word-of-mouth buzz record without the benefit of a distributor or even a PR manager, the Low Anthem is an act that really knows how to make a DIY approach to the music business work. The band, now recording as a quartet thanks to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Mat Davidson, brings that thrift-store scavenger POV to their latest effort, Smart Flesh, filling the album with flourishes of unusual instruments and natural environment sounds from the abandoned pasta sauce factory where they recorded the bulk of the tracks. Although those choices make for a creative sonic palette for a contemporary folk record, Smart Flesh too often succumbs to a plodding tempo and cavernous, echoing reverb that robs the album of warmth.
If this isn't the first review you've read of Smart Flesh, you're likely already aware that the Low Anthem recorded much of the record with a bunch of friends in an abandoned pasta sauce factory near their hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. It's a delectable PR morsel, used as a metaphorical device for the people who created it: A community of workers rolling up their sleeves to humbly pull long hours manufacturing food is a quirky image of increasingly archaic American industriousness, a pat likeness for a band like Low Anthem working within time-honored and respected folk tropes. The physical labor used to be the only tedious thing in the scenario; here, the product is drudgingly tiresome, too.
Easy-going and mellifluous, songs built on the simplest of patterns. Mike Haydock 2011 Listening to The Low Anthem’s breakthrough album – 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin – was a jarring experience. It was a clashing of two genres: profoundly moving acoustic folk and raucous blues-rock. The clash was so marked, it sounded like two separate bands.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. WALKING through the derelict pasta sauce factory in nearby Central Falls, R.I., you can see its bygone glories in a soaring, window-flanked second floor that is a magnificent testimonial to industry. But there are no people here, no machines, so it’s framed by a palpable melancholy on a February day. When the members of the quirky musical foursome with a penchant for old-timey songs and instruments called the Low Anthem found this place a little over a year ago, they saw something different.
The Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh begins at the end of a journey. “On my way home,” sings Ben Knox Miller in the opening track, “Ghost Woman Blues”, before remarking something powerful but unintelligible. Lo-fi piano chords play on in the background, joined by the voice of Jocie Adams, the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Here, as with much of Smart Flesh, which was partly recorded in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, long notes tremble and words blend and slur.
Providence, Rhode Island’s Low Anthem made small waves in 2009 with the existential ruminations of “Charlie Darwin” – a track that made for a stately introduction of the band’s folk/country/gospel M.O. while miraculously sidestepping any traces of nostalgic parody or old-timey schtick. Featuring a melody sung in a tender falsetto and vocal harmonies as rich as they were chilling, “Charlie Darwin” was a stirring testimony to the emotive intensity of acoustic music, most famously championed in recent years by indie folk revivalists like Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes.