Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Low Anthem

In his trademark "American Pie," Don McLean described Bob Dylan – the iconic jester in his long-winded narrative – as possessing a "voice that came from you and me." The same is true of his fellow folk-rock trendsetter, Neil Young. There just seems to be something inherent in folk-rock that welcomes – if not demands – a vocal pitch just slightly askew. The nasal wail of Dylan and Young – a trait likewise found in their contemporaries of today, such as The Avett Brothers, past (and future) reviewees the Rural Alberta Advantage, or today's profilees, The Low Anthem – suggests an authenticity and kinship with their audience, as if a more beautiful rendering would somehow push their work towards the brie-and-Chablis set. Whether that is or isn't the case, it's nonetheless a trend that continues with The Low Anthem and their frontman, Ben Knox Miller, on Smart Flesh – released today on Nonesuch Records (a deluxe 16-track version is also available).

The credits page of Smart Flesh reads like a recipe card. But here, instead of carrots, shallots or beef stock, the recipe calls for ingredients ranging from the clarinet and jaw harp to a tenor banjo and "croatles with sizzling coins." And instead of preparing the dish via a stovetop fry pan or pre-heated oven, the quartet substitutes a pair of recording locations for the 11-track collection in the group's native Rhode Island: the abandoned Porino’s pasta sauce factory in Central Falls or 891 N. Main St. in Providence.

For a release containing as much unique material that's presented as the record unfurls, it's interesting the first offering is a cover: George Carter's 1929 ballad, "Ghost Woman Blues." The piano-driven number is filled-out by multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams' beautifully low-register clarinet solo, and references to hardscrabble Americana, including the "L&N" (the Louisville and Nashville to railfans) and "that lonesome graveyard." The selection makes for an fitting transition to its original follow-up, "Apothecary Love." Sounding as if it could as easily spilled from the same 1920s songbook as its predecessor, the rusty harmonica, steel guitars and single-mic group harmonies present a comfortable backdrop for Miller's folksy narrative.

And yet, the Dylan influence barges through with gusto on the gnarly "Boeing 737." Somehow the foursome makes a tune about a modern jetliner blare through like Dylan and The Band unearthing some Woody Guthrie rarity. We hear about a Gatling gun and the prophets who "entered boldly into the bar." It might be a bit jarring after the more somber introductory numbers, but its as spirited and rocking as the outfit can offer.

Following a string of relatively uneventful selections – the pretty, but restrained vocal harmonics of "Love and Altar," the cello-and-harmonica "Matter of Time" and the instrumental "Wire," featuring another lovely clarinet part from Adams – more interesting fare returns in "Burn." Although not particularly rambunctious, Miller's songwriting is solid here, describing "black angels," and "your memory now is a shadow to my shadow; I wind in time like a player piano" on top of banjo and organ filament. But more captivating is another Dylan-esque call-out on, "Hey, All You Hippies!" Although the tempo is sliced in half from "Boeing 737," the same foundation supports the number, with a four-bar blues rhythm track and grainy electric guitars rounding out the performance. To the same measure, "I'll Take Out Your Ashes" is surprising in not only its simplicity in relation to the previous track, but the tenderness by which Miller conveys his love for the departed. Featuring front-porch banjo picking paired with Paul Simon-style wordsmithing, its one of the few slow tracks on the record that comes through as distinctive.

"Golden Cattle" features some outstanding harmonizing at the outset, but the title track isn't as enjoyable. I'd recommend investigating the five deluxe tracks, however – mostly for the fairly upbeat "Vines" and the quasi-spiritual "Daniel in the Lions' Den." Both sound as if they could benefit from a full treatment in the editing and mixing process, though, as the former abruptly cuts-off at the instrumental play-out (although it's Hammond B-3 part is excellent) and the latter sounds a bit muddled, which certainly could have been cleaned-up in mixing and mastering. I'd have preferred if these cuts had made their way onto the official product, rather than a few too many somber ballads.

Come for: "Ghost Woman Blues"
Stay for: "Boeing 737"
You'll be surprised by: "I'll Take Out Your Ashes"

P.S. The Low Anthem will appear this Thursday at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

P.P.S. Touring Schedule Saturdays will debut this Saturday (hopefully), so stay tuned...

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