A fortuitous meeting at an Ivy League radio station partnered schoolmates Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky in a worthy musical venture that has provided some great dividends along the way. Uniting in 2002 as Brown University on-air staffers at WBRU, the dynamic multi-instrumental duo became interested in learning everything they possibly could about compositional construction, studio production, proper miking, and other technical aspects from the outset.
Four years down the road, the humble Rhode Island twosome would hit the road as The Low Anthem, finding a national audience with their sympathetic travelogues, rustic road odes, and hexed lover’s concertos. In 2007, Jocie Adams came aboard full time and the skillful troika received great underground exposure with the convincing What The Crow Brings.
By this point, The Low Anthem had secured their status as one of the best Americana-related acts, comparing favorably against en vogue folkies such as North Carolina’s Avett Brothers and New York’s Felice Brothers. A more direct contemporary comparison with Seattle’s baroque rock-oriented Fleet Foxes is fair, but the dramatic pathos wafting through the drifting rural pastures this alluring Rhode Island troupe sojourn cuts deeper and goes further on ‘09s magnificent Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
An ambitious achievement reliant on plaintive Country folk restraint and countered perfectly by feverish roadhouse Blues, Oh My God takes place in the 19th century when English naturalist Charles Darwin’s scientific theories on the transmutation of species were being developed. And despite Miller’s pragmatic lyrical perspective, his solemn requiems cannot escape dipping into spirited religiosity.
“The interest in Darwin is less with his historical figure and more with the way he challenged the idea of survival of the fittest. Especially when you look at morality and the teachings of Christianity,” Miller asserts during a phone call from a secluded Oklahoma village on route to Texas. “It’s a record about how our ideas and values are subjected to survival of the fittest. I’m not anti-religious, but the album recognizes the church has a missionary arm and the church is spreading itself and its ideas like an animal reproduces and the genes are passed on. There’s the reference that Darwin’s acknowledged that sort of analogy – looking for something to hold on to as far as values or identity.”
Miller’s parents were highly influential music informants. As a pre-teen, basic roots rock and acoustic folk artists topped the list of formative compositional inspirations.
“The stuff I heard as a kid were Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. That’s what I heard at home,” he advises. “Certainly, I found the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but Pete Seeger was always on whether at school or wherever. I learned his songs at a young age.”
Projecting gloom, agony, and longing with his strikingly melancholic fragile tenor and nasally droned baritone whine, Miller’s trembled quiver stirringly haunts stripped-down meditational ruminations such as the whispered opening dirge, “Charlie Darwin,” and desolate Cathedral-bound Cowboy Junkies-like threnody, “Cage The Songbird.”
“Those are arrangements we came up with at the end of the process,” Miller informs. “We tried them different ways, changing the tempo, instrumentation, and who’s playing what instrument. That happened right at the end of the studio session. We said, ‘OK. Let’s do them an octave higher.’ There’s this choral quality where we all sing the harmonies together. It’s just a small fraction of what we do, but it’s an important part of our sound. I’m not sure whose idea it was but it came at the end of a long process of figuring out how to (make the songs gel).”
An air of desperation also bedevils poignant muzzle-voiced maunder “Ticket Taker.” Similarly, the barren atmospherics of comforting campfire command, “(Don’t) Tremble,” and mystical yearn, “To Ohio,” recall Nick Drake’s ghostly empyreal ‘70s recordings. Forlorn train-whistle harmonica, pump organ, banjo, clarinet, and saxophone help increase the magnitude of Miller’s solitary grief-stricken hymnals.
“Charles Darwin has a better live feel. What The Crow Brings was self-produced and engineered. Jeff and I did it as a duo and everything was overdubbed. We were learning to do basic production. It was a modest production,” Miller admits. “Because it was just the two of us, we spent a lot of time adjusting microphones and recording each other. Besides the first two tracks we laid down, there wasn’t much of a live feeling to the record. There weren’t as many hands on deck so we couldn’t experiment with these wild arrangements. You had to go one step at a time to see how the combination of things sounded. But when there were three of us (with the addition of Adams), you could try different things.”
My hypothesis has Miller laughing before he jokingly quips, “That only occurred as an afterthought.”
Then again, he’s not so dismissive of my intimations that “Ticket Taker” alludes to Simon & Garfunkle’s majestic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (via lyrical tidbit ‘I will be your arc to float across the storm’) or equally resplendent neo-Classical elegy “The Boxer” (as per the agonized ‘boxer felt no pain’).
“Those are all references I’m very familiar with. But there’s a lot of other songs about boxers like Dylan’s “Hurricane.” So it’s not a direct reference,” he surmises.
Thankfully, The Low Anthem never feel relegated to only delivering drowsy Country & Western-procured entreaties a la the reverent “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” knockoff, “OMGCD.” They prove just as successful reinterpreting Mississippi Delta Blues, tearing it up with the best of ‘em on whiskey-bent junkyard rumble, “Champion Angel,” an electric guitar-driven number that’d fit alongside the Black Keys, North Mississippi All Stars, and early Kings Of Leon.
“That song shows a seriously different side to the band. Why should we be restricted when we’re able to use so many vintage instruments,” Miller maintains.
Moreover, scraggly gravel-voiced omen, “The Horizon Is A Beltway,” and Beat-derived Kerouac poem, “Home I’ll Never Be,” indulge Tom Waits’ raspy beatnik scruff. Another mournful pledge, “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books,” begs for consolation while indirectly exorcising demons.
Perhaps Charlie Darwin unintentionally mirrors America’s current economic woes with its downtrodden hard-times-in-the-land-of-plenty proverbs. One good listen will convince the unsure, and probably uninsured, proletariat that we’re all mere castaways betwixt the Atlantic and Pacific shorelines. It’s sometimes comparable to the bleak caliginous sundowners underscoring two of ‘09s finest long-play indie releases – Grizzly Bear’s divine revelation Veckatimest and Animal Collective’s equally enlightened Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The main difference is The Low Anthem’s reliance on established roots-based folk (dust bowl balladeering and old timey Appalachian anecdotes included) instead of conventional pop techniques. They inventively redirect present-day narratives and pave the way for a looming apocalyptic future with a few choice acoustical renditions. Their grim, bleary-eyed accounts plead for salvation in a world full of fear and pain and disintegration.