ANTHEMIC The Low Anthem

 

 

 

The Rhode Island band just wants to make
records they care about.

 

BY EMERSON
RICHARDS

 

Comprising four
multi-instrumentalist Brown graduates – Jocie Adams, Jeff Prystowsky and Ben
Knox Miller, plus Mat Davidson (who joined last year) – the Low Anthem
represents a new type of folk-Americana music. “That’s like the coolest thing,”
Adams says, “the wide audience. We have 90 to 12 year olds coming to our
shows.” The Low Anthem is not trying to play for a specific audience. “We make
music that we love”, adds Prystowsky.

 

This breadth of
listeners was in evidence at a recent concert in Indianapolis where Harry
Connick Jr. was playing at the same time in a large, adjacent theater. As we
waited in the cold, comraded against the weather, those waiting for the Low
Anthem and Avett Brothers concert played the ever popular game of “spot who is
going to which concert.” You might be surprised – other than the floor length
furs, there wasn’t much difference. There was even an infant, with large
protective ear phones, in the audience. Adams spoke to this, telling me that
little kids especially seem to like “To Ohio,” a song from their most recent
album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.    

 

“‘Authentic’ is
a slippery word.”

 

Adams sits in
front of me, having yielded what she deems the princess chair to me, in the
bowels of the Murat Centre. Slippery it may be, but the Low Anthem seems to
encompass the term. There is nothing synthetic about their music – they all
play multiple instruments, and are accomplished singers and songwriters.
Miller’s voice would hardly seem to need any mechanical enhancement as he can
falsetto and then seamlessly transition into belting something raucous.

 

The versatility
displayed within either of their latest available albums (the first album they
produced, entitled The Low Anthem, is
virtually unobtainable) is initially unexpected, but the pleasant surprises of
shift in sound make these records very easy to listen to repetitively. What the Crow Brings (2007) features
more liltingly, almost country, sounding songs than 2008’s Charlie Darwin, which has an antique, transient feel. The title
track that record begins with the ethereal voice of Miller, accompanied by acoustic
guitar and reverb. Miller sings such beautiful lyrics as “who could heed the
words of Charlie Darwin/ fighting for a system built to fail” with a deep forlornness
and disappointment. At the chorus he is joined in harmony by Adams and
Prystowsky as well as harmonicas. It is simple. It is subtle. And yet, it is
powerful. The entire mood of the album shifts circa the fourth song, “The
Horizon is a Beltway.” In a fit of harmonica, bass and what could be either
banjo or guitar, Miller lays down very rhythmically driven lyrics, his voice
rough and deep, yet controlled. In terms of lyrics and sound aesthetics, the
standout track is “Champion Angel.” Most certainly unlike the first half of the
album, this is one of their heavier songs; however, it does not fit the same
classification as “The Horizon is a Beltway” or “Home I’ll Never Be” – there’s
a clarity of lyrical enunciation and a wholly different approach as it leans
towards a White Stripes-esque brand of folky rock (think early White Stripes: De Stijl or White Blood Cells).

 

Yet to compare
the Low Anthem with another band would be to sell them short of their own
uniqueness. This is the type of song you turn up real loud and blast, going
full speed down some desert or backwoods road, and simply allow yourself to be
engulfed. The album ends, as it began, with harmony and simplicity. “Omgcd”
begins with just the band, singing, accompanied by acoustic guitar, foot
stomping and mandolin. (“We recorded that one on the porch,” Prystowsky says.)
It’s a very folksy, rootsy song, but without loosing any of the intensity.
That’s followed by a reprise of “To Ohio,” Miller’s voice sounds farther away
this time, which is appropriate. The instruments become the overlaying sound,
while Miller’s voice is somewhat faded in the background. The album, in it
summation, becomes a conglomeration of reverence, vagabond traveling of the
turn of the century, fragile beauty, yearning, On the Road, and America.

 

What is
significant about the Low Anthem is that the music they create is not just
entertainment, but it is also not, as folk music has been in the past, largely
politically driven. It is not, however, devoid of intellectualism.

 

The Low Anthem
is neither purely Folk nor is it Anti-Folk (a movement started in Greenwich
Village in the early ‘90s, which strived to strip folk music of its political
charge and gear it more towards sound aesthetics). Especially in Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, The Low
Anthem presents music which is palatable as just music; it can be appreciated
merely for the aesthetics. However, lyrics such as “Oh my god, Charlie Darwin
where are you now/… it ain’t nothing but the cold hard ground/ my better half
will stay but I must go (‘OMGCD’)” and “We don’t need no personal saviors
here…/ Among all you angels is a champion angel/ Amidst all you devils there’s
a free soul (‘Champion Angel’)” display a mix of allusions, both historical and
biblical, to form songs that are cerebrally substantial.

 

Put another way,
what Bob Dylan did with Folk music and protest, the Low Anthem is doing with
this new Folk and intellectualism. That is not to say that this
intellectualization has not been done before, but the way the Low Anthem does
it is so unobtrusive that the group is able to produce music for the masses, as
well as, music for the those who enjoy a thought provoking lyric or two.

 

Often bands,
especially those who operate within the broad Americana genre, betray a certain
regionalist sound which renders them more difficult to access by audiences of
other regions. Though Miller introduces the band between songs by stating
“We’re the Low Anthem from Providence, Rhode Island,” there is nothing in their
music to pinpoint them regionally. When asked about this, Adams agrees, explaining
that Rhode Island is well-known for noise music (“so loud it becomes
meditative”), which does not feature into the Low Anthem’s repertoire of
sounds. However, she says one song on the next record will refer directly to
Providence. And, of course, the band draws energy which influences their music,
and “energy is something”.

 

Listening to the
records of some bands, you will get the whole experience; you need not travel
much farther than a record store. However, as good as the Low Anthem is on CD,
or vinyl, they are even better in live performance. Their sets, much like their
songs, are dynamic and work with the crowd’s energy. At a November concert in
Orlando opening for Blind Pilot there was distinct difference in both the song
selection and the actual performance of certain songs also played recently in
Indianapolis. With Blind Pilot, a band hailing from Portland, Oregon and
exuding a chill west coast folk feel, the Low Anthem seemed to play softer
songs.

 

Perhaps this was
a function of the space or the audience: the venue in Orlando held no more than
two hundred, whereas the audience for the Avett Brothers was upwards of a
thousand. The songs played at the Orlando concert included “Ticket Taker,”  “To
Ohio,” “Cage the Songbird” and “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books.” In
contrast, Adams points out that that Indianapolis was the first night they had
played “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” since they had been touring with the Avett
Brothers. In lieu, they played “The Horizon is a Beltway,” “Home I’ll Never Be”
and the gospel standard “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round.”

 

This difference,
according to Adams, is a response to the audience, not the venue, and while
most would think that a large venue would be more conducive to louder, more
driven songs, Adams says that their best shows are at the larger venues when
they play quiet songs. She points out that when they played Toronto’s Massey
Hall, with occupancy of around two thousand, “We didn’t use any electric
instruments. It was beautiful. The effect fills the space up.”  Yet when the Low Anthem plays their raucous
songs, in reaction to the crowd’s energy, this is not indicative of bad energy.
“Everything’s got character, natural ambiance,” she notes. With an album
featuring lyrics relating to Charles Darwin, and “songs teetering between
religious and anti-religious,” it seems ironic that churches would be among the
band’s most favored venues.

 

Prystowsky echoes
many of Adams’ comments, adding, in regards to his band’s recent successes in
Europe, “There is an ‘exoticification’ of Americana. People will come to see
older musical styles.” With the band’s star clearly on the rise, the pair also
admits that the Low Anthem is in a constant state of change.  Recently, Davidson joined as the fourth
member. “The vibe of the band has changed,” Adams says, “and I’ve started to
sing more. We are definitely trying to grow, change, morph, expand.”

 

“We are going to
continue to make records that we care about,” Prystowsky concludes, with an
uncommon air of calmness. “We are not trying to do more than that.”

 

Indeed, it seems
the Low Anthem has done more already.

 

[Photo Credit: Dan Miller]

 

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