The Low Anthem have threaded a high wire throughout their new album Smart Flesh (Nonesuch), and they traverse it with a solemn grace.
The politics of war and empty suits ("Hey All You Hippies") and love and guilt ("I'll Take Out Your Ashes") conspire with the album's direct and oblique, references to high wire walking - and specifically to Phillipe Petit, and his 1974 walk between the in-construction World Trade Center towers (documented beautifully in the 2008 film Man On Wire) - to conjure a wrenching mix of inspiration, bygone eras, vague menace, and resulting sadness. The lynchpin is the exhilarating "Boeing 737," which demands your attention early on an album otherwise filled with a stillness and meditation.
There's welcome trend in the pop music these days of bands moving beyond electric guitars and electronic gizmos (hey, one of those bands just won a Grammy, even!) and broadening their sounds with more variety of traditional instruments. The Low Anthem do this in a way that feels more organic to me than most of these other bands. I love that breathing field organ and Jocie Adams' clarinet and singing saw.
This is presumably what WNYC's Soundcheck host Jack Shaefer was referring to in this past Sunday's New York Times feature on the band, because there's no theremin on this album. I suppose that a singing saw might be a sort of unplugged theremin, though, and his larger point about The Low Anthem messing with our expectations is certainly well-taken. Boilerplate Americana on paper, they've crafted a unique voice. There's a certainly a Southern rural undercurrent, but it's heavily overlayed by a despairing Northern (or rust belt?) post-industrial, post-9/11, post-financial collapse malaise. It creates a reflection of a recurrent America in a timeless template. That most of it was recorded in the former spaghetti sauce factory formerly owned by Providence, Rhode Island's convicted felon mayor is almost too perfect.
I've talked before of how magical their performances can be. I still regret not being able to see them in one of the church venues at SXSW a couple of years ago that was reportedly transcendent, but I have another chance! As they headline Boston's Old South Church on Friday, March 4th [tickets] with original member Daniel Lefkowitz and Vermont's Bobby (a difficult-to-Google band name, but I found 'em). The tour opener from a Washington, DC synagogue will be broadcast live on NPR and should prove to be a good preview.
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