Review: The Low Anthem’s “Smart Flesh”
The Low Anthem’s first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.
“Smart Flesh” gets much of its ghostly, otherwordly feel from months of recording in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Providence, Rhode Island, home to the band, who met as students at Brown University. Just like The Band decades ago, much of the power of “Smart Flesh” comes from the instruments they chose. But this time it’s not mandolin and fiddle. The Low Anthem hauled in an entire studio and a warehouse worth of instruments, including, saws, jaw harp, banjo, dulcimer, various horns, and of course, a pump organ or two. Ben Knox Miller, who does most of the singing, can sound like Richard Manuel on one tune, then Leonard Cohen on another (listen to the sad banjo and softly wailing saw frame Knox’s vocals on “Burn”).
Some songs, like the beautiful opener, “Ghost Woman Blues,” are incantations, modern hymns, as they are anything else. “Apothecary Love,” the second cut, is an old fashioned country weeping waltz that could have been on “Big Pink.” But while the overall mood is airy and subdued, the disc isn’t quiet throughout. That’s clear when the horns and drums come galloping out of the box on the anthemic “Boeing 773,” an indie rocker about 9/11. “I was in the air when the towers came down/ In a bar on the 84th floor.”
But the words almost seem secondary to the atmosphere. The second half of the album after the instrumental break of “Wire,” a meditation on clarinet, is full of somber grace punctuated in the middle by the rollicking “Hey, All You Hippies!” fueled by organ and vocals that recall The Band. On “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes,” whcih sounds like something from a cabin’s front porch, the plucked banjo again frames an apology and a lament about a wife’s cremated ashes that haven’t been given their immortal resting place. “It’s a sad and guilty feeling/ Since I did not take out your ashes/ Whatever I was feeling, never came to passing.”
The title track closer is a creepy, maudlin meditation that it seems could only have been recorded in the empty, sprawling space. But that’s appropriate. “Smart Flesh” is a new kind of folk record where the feeling is the message.