It should come as no surprise that a band whose members collect more hobbies than Rachel Wiesz’s character in The Brother’s Bloom is not easily categorized.
Made up of folk-singer/painter Ben Knox Miller, jazz bassist/baseball scholar Jeff Prystowsky, and classical composer/NASA technician Jocie Adams, Rhode Island based band The Low Anthem are a synthesis of the very best elements of au-courant “Americana.” On the one hand, Miller, the lead voice, and company could be considered a part of the winter-cabin-recordings world of Sam Beam and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon – as other critics have claimed. Miller’s crooning falsetto is as clear and smooth as they come when it needs to be. Combined with the band’s sparse, but sophisticated, arrangements, it’s the perfect conduit for the melancholy folk ballads that made up much of their first album, What the Crow Brings, and a good portion of their most recent effort, the evermore highly acclaimed, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, a record that, perhaps coincidentally, was itself recorded in “the ghostly stillness of a Block Island winter.”
Yet on the other hand, The Low Anthem seems, at times, to have been educated in the school of Tom Waits and Woody Guthrie, and majored in the long-standing folk music motif of the “road.” Indeed, Charlie Darwin boasts Waits’s own “Home I’ll Never Be,” and the similarly raucous “The Horizon Is a Beltway”, a song that sounds as if it may have come straight from Wait’s recent Orphans collection. It’s an album constantly in motion, full of as many twists, turns and progressions between styles and moods as the Americana genre itself. Fittingly, this construction creates a road-like effect, like going on a journey or thinking deeply about Big Ideas that don’t necessarily fit together in a clear pattern. But while the band is actually thinking about such deep ideas, and is presenting their thoughts in varying and diverse ways, the record is no post modern pastiche of philosophical angst and so-called indie platitudes, lyrically or otherwise.
On the contrary, in fact. There is a lovely unity to this record, despite the reported 27 instruments employed during the recording process and the relative youthfulness of the band mates (they are all in their mid twenties). Miller’s writing is poetic throughout, focused on the idea and value of change (as the record’s title might imply), particularly as brought about by a good solid journey, but also by the value of questions, doubt, and ultimately, it seems, hope. On the beautiful title track which kick-starts the album, Miller sings, “Set the sails I feel the winds a’stirring//Toward the bright horizon set the way//Cast your reckless dreams upon our Mayflower//Haven from the world and her decay.” Here, the horizon, another ubiquitous motif, is the land of opportunity and hope, a faraway place perfect for a new start. But suddenly something changes. Here’s the rest of the song:
“And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
Fighting for a system built to fail
Spooning water from their broken vessels
As far as I can see there is no land
Oh my god, the water’s all around us
Oh my god, it’s all around
And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
The lords of war just profit from decay
And trade their children’s promise for the jingle
The way we trade our hard earned time for pay
Oh my god, the water’s cold and shapeless
Oh my god, it’s all around
Oh my god, life is cold and formless
Oh my god, it’s all around”
The journey isn’t going quite as planned. The horizon, no matter how faraway it may be, doesn’t simply change all things, doesn’t simply offer the edge of the world and an entrance into something better. Rather, out there is the “cold and shapeless” sea. As Miller said in one interview, “while species are evolving, our morals and ethical codes are evolving too, depending on which [idea] has legs. . . .”
Change, in all it’s scientific, philosophic, even religious manifestations is not simply some cure-all. Rather, as Knox sings in “The Horizon is a Beltway”, “The horizon is a beltway that we may never cross//The tops of buildings tremble like children lorn and lost//The stain runs deep it’s deeper than the blood upon the cross.//The horizon is a beltway that we may never cross…” He continues later, “the horizon is a beltway, the skyline’s on fire.”
Yes, the journey offers change and the potential for new-ness, but it also might be dangerous, as the gorgeous “To Ohio” suggests. Here, the singer “lost [his] love before her time” on the way to Ohio from Louisiana. And like Moses to his people, she sings to him “bless your soul, you crossed that line.” The narrator’s haunting descriptions of this lost love singing these lines from the shadowy pine forests of Ohio make for poetry as gorgeous as any you’ll come across this year – and a moving, beautiful song to boot.
But every song on this collection is beautiful. Each of them are exquisitely crafted, songs pitch perfect in tone and mood, clearly crafted with great care and significant effort. Each song fulfills a purpose, helps tell the story. If there is a flaw, it’s that (if indeed one wants to call this a flaw) the latter part of the album’s middle feels almost too quiet after the rowdy fun of the heart of the order, so to speak. But if these rowdy songs are the blood pulsating through the album’s veins, the quiet, more reflective ballads are the album’s heart and lungs, running the show and letting the blood do it’s thing. The quieter the song the more the poetry stands out, the more raucous the song the more the emotion stands out. A win-win in the case of this album, if you ask me.
Some listeners might detect a hint (or perhaps more than a hint) of agnosticism in the record, however I’m not so sure I’d agree with that sentiment, one which, by the way, has been tossed about some in the blogosphere. In the interview I mentioned above, Miller says that the album is about, in part, “Darwinism driving the evolution of values, and not being grounded in a set of absolute values…” I think he may be suggesting that what is important is this sense of certain values as absolute, as true and good and necessary, values without which change is more or less meaningless in any kind of lasting way.
Eventually, all ships at sea will run into nasty weather and without some sort of absolute guideline for dealing with that weather the ship will sink. Similarly, all the change that is at the root of Darwinism is fundamentally rendered decay, lifeless, unless there is some sort of absolute system to make it otherwise. What that system might be I don’t think Miller and his mates presume to know, although they might be offering a clue in “OMGCD” when he sings, “Do your job and I’ll do mine//I’ll do my best to hold the line.” I wouldn’t call this agnosticism unless it’s agnosticism tinged with a relatively poignant dash of humanism.
Yes, there is hope here, running throughout. Perhaps, like those more quiet songs, it is this hope which is the heartbeat of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
As Miller sings to open “Don’t Tremble,” “If your pilot light should die//Do not quake and do not bark//You will find the spark.”