The Low Anthem are part of a growing crop of groups playing what I like to call “Smith-icana”. This “genre” was named after the great music anthropologist and scholar Harry Everett Smith, who gave us the endlessly influential music collection Anthology of American Folk Music. Instead of simply compiling songs from folk, country, blues and gospel genres, The Low Anthem plays them although these tunes are all their own. They are clearly students of great American music, and as such have absorbed all of the old traditions but refuses to be limited by them.
For lesser talents, this is a difficult balance to strike. One step to far in one direction and they are simply copying the greats and a step too far the other way they don’t come across as genuine. Luckily for listeners, The Low Anthem rise to the occasion on their new album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Although the band’s ability to jump styles is quite a feat, the most amazing weapon in their arsenal is their voices. Frontman Ben Knox Miller posses a powerful falsetto croon that is sounds one part Stephen Stills and another part Elliott Smith, which further underscores the strong past and present dynamic that is so present in their music. The opening track, “Charlie Darwin”, is arguably Miller’s stand alone masterpiece. The music is sparse with just an acoustic guitar playing lightly in the background as Miller takes a story based folk tune and lifts it up to the heavens with his voice, which reflects a love of gospel, that simply soars even on record
When joined by the rest of the group, Jocie Adams and Jeff Prystowsky, as he is on “To Ohio” and the acoustic gospel number “Omgcd”, it creates a sweet harmony that has very little equal in contemporary music. As I mentioned before The Low Anthem isn’t just some 60s harmony group, they can rock out when the music calls for it as well. “Champion Angel” shows the band gruffing up their voices and their instruments just a tad. The track comes across as one part 50s barn burner and another part Billy Bragg.
Other tracks like the Tom Waits cover “Home I’ll Never Be” sounds like a field recording of a late night jamboree. It is all there – harmonica’s blaring, drums beating and a big booming voice right up front “preaching” the gospel of the open road. Yet another jam “The Horizon on the Beltway”, the song is yet another hard pumping rocker but this time Miller is playing acoustic guitar, well to call it playing would be an understatement. He is beating that one or two chords to death, and with that much intensity.
Some may claim that Oh My God, Charlie Darwin has too much diversity, that too much of a good thing is well, “too good”. I rebut these detractors by saying, The Low Anthem have so much talent they could be a great band no matter what genre they decided to pick. Instead of pigeonholing their talent in the safe confines of “indie” or “alt-country” they express it openly and in any form it takes. That for alone should get them a round of applause, but I feel their record will get them plenty of those anyway.