Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

New York City has been struck by a massive thunderstorm this weekend, and it has turned my listening rotation towards the more pensive and melancholy numbers in my library. Fitting, then, that I finally turn my ears to The Low Anthem's breakthrough album from last year. In a time of clouds of rain Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is like a warm fire offering you a blanket and a prime spot in front of it to cozy up and dry off. Hushed voices harmonizing over a bed of soft pump organ and plucked acoustic instruments, the Low Anthem makes wonderfully delicate folk music which occasionally veers towards a roots rock stomp explosion.

I first heard the Low Anthem through NPR's All Songs Considered, when host Bob Boilen played the exquisite de facto title track, "Charlie Darwin." Opening with gentle guitar and a truly gorgeous falsetto voice, the track slowly expands to include quiet harmonies and the soft pump organ that plays under so much of this band's woodsy folk. Lyrically following Charles Darwin as he sets sail on the Beagle, the melody gently recalls a sea shanty but as played like an elegiac hymn. The song sings Darwin's praises with a combination of beatific worship and hushed humility. Somehow it toes that line. This is transcendent beauty, and if it's a peak the band never re-summits on this album, well, who bloody well cares? It's here and it's remarkable.

The album continues, as it must, by landing on Earth from its divine launching port. "To Ohio" and "Ticket Takers" are a pair of lovely folk numbers that cover more mundane stories with more typical instrumentation. Contemplative and reflective, they shepherd the listener through to the next passage of the album, where the Low Anthem light their campfire and rock out to the rhythms of life. "The Horizon is a Beltway" is a raucous blues rocker with distorted vocals shouting, "the skyline's on fire!" in the kind of way that makes you want to jump up and celebrate the combustion. It's followed by another rocker, a cover of Tom Waits' setting of Jack Kerouac's words to music, "Home I'll Never Be." Complete with Waitsian anvil strikes and a wailing harmonica, it pairs with its predecessor to form a high-steppin' rave-up duo.

The Low Anthem settles down from there, with the following songs returning to the folksy aesthetic with only slight embellishments. "Cage the Songbird" has some lovely percussive shakers and "(Don't) Tremble" is overdubbed with field recordings of bird calls to give it a rustic feel. "Music Box", the album's only serious misstep, is an interminable ambience with (duh) a music box playing over it. Thankfully, it's a short interlude, less than two minutes, and it's followed by the longest cut on Charlie Darwin, the welcome return of the Low Anthem's plugged-in brand of roots rock with "Champion Angel." This one's the closest they get to straightforward rock, and while they aren't a great rock band they still have the chops to let it all hang out.

The final stretch of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin just brings us home. "To the Ghosts Who Write History Books" happens to boast one of the better song titles I've come across lately, and then we have two songs recalling predecessors. "Omgcd" is little campfire singalong, sort of the morning-after awakening chant after the overnight party represented by the album's rockers. Lastly, we have a reprise of "To Ohio" which isn't a reprise so much as a continuation. This version gives the song a definitive underlying pulse, moving with oscillating frequencies and a chugging beat. If the first version landed us on the earthly terrain of the album to follow it, this conclusive version packs up our bags and puts us on the leaving train. Charlie Darwin is a neat little album, and one I'm both glad to have met and intrigued to see what comes after it for the Low Anthem. They're a rustic folk operation that can work on many facets, and this album's stunning open shows they can climb lofty peaks. I want them to aspire for more of it, but I hope they don't lose the charming humility they somehow manage to maintain.


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