The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin [Album]


Originally published at Sonic Dice, July 2009.

It’s hard to not be drawn into The Low Anthem’s world through the sheer atmosphere of this album. Although an extremely modern album in many ways, it also harks back through the United States’ short history more effectively than many museums or monuments could. Perhaps that’s due to the pessimistic view of the future Oh My God, Charlie Darwin offers us, which is frequently characterised with apocalyptic disaster, of breakup and breakdown. Connotations already ping around like kernels of corn heated in a pot over an open fire from the title alone. It suggests God-fearing horror in the face of advancing ideas, but also of modernity and wry irony; typically American, in other words. And upon listening to the record, Americana is what you get; it smacks you in the face like a well-struck baseball. But as already discussed, the past is what the band turn to most of the time. This is a world of state lines, of confederacy, of hearing you in the whine. Hotdogs, sports-entertainment and Obama are not included. The financial turmoil and eroding of previously-impervious economic edifices however may well be a suitable backdrop.

The Low Anthem are built upon a chamber music aesthetic of three musicians, all purring accordions and clarinets, with some effective modern twists strictly in appropriate and unobtrusive places. This is a record that could easily have been made fifty years ago or more, sounding soulful in a gospel manner, but also sounding fresh and contemporary; certainly no mean feat. This oldie-worldy feel of the band’s approach is echoed by the artwork – “Hand silkscreened in Providence, RI” a sticker proudly proclaims – and in opener Charlie Darwin’s subject matter. There is a certain feeling of ecclesiastical hopelessness in Ben Knox-Miller’s lyrics; “Oh my God, the water’s cold and shapeless. Oh my God, it’s all around”. The keening backing vocals and upright bass are beautifully baroque in their arrangements, and a distinctive sound is revealed early on.

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin plays with the idea of modernity in many insightful and interesting ways. It comes across as a rumination upon the condition of modernity and what it means to such a young country as the United States. To the Ghosts who Write History Books (aside from its fantastic title) begins with the lyric, “To them ghosts who write history books, to the ghosts who write songs”, by implication casting the band themselves as ghosts. This is fascinating considering the themes and subject matters covered; opener Charlie Darwin for example begins speaking of the Mayflower, hailing back to the very inception of the present day United States of America. Songwriters are indeed ghosts, inhabiting any temporal period they choose to, and The Low Anthem consciously position themselves throughout America’s history and geography. As an entity, the record sounds very American, which is in no way a negative point when the sound is this emotive and at times wistful. Most songs – including Tom Waits cover Home I’ll Never Be – incorporate the names of states and cities in their lyrics, making the album feel like the soundtrack to an epic journey; perhaps a road trip. In a covered wagon.

As already hinted at, the album’s lyrics deal with some weighty issues, and extensively ponders the current state of society through songs about both its birth and demise. It may seem like all this will simply lead to ennui, but there is hope in here if you search for it, as on Ticket Taker. But this isn’t a chink of light in a dark room sort of optimism; it’s much more ethereal and innate than that. The American Dream of betterment – the seemingly-certain knowledge that the individual can succeed and that ‘things will be OK’ – is brought to bear upon the album’s atmosphere. What this recalls is a sort of Cormac McCarthy-esque hope-against-hope, of carrying the fire. Yes things are bad, but somehow the odds will be overcome. Therefore, it’s possible to categorise the overall sound of the album as apocalyptic blues. Knox-Miller’s off-rhythm line at the start of the second verse, “I keep a stock of women should society collapse” is an emphatic highlight, and also demonstrates the apparently-inevitable continuation of mankind. The crackly, lo-fi quality of Ticket Taker supports such a characterisation, and draws the ‘recorded in a shack and sounds like it’ Bon Iver comparison.

After a sedate, minimalist opening, a clutch of more raucous tracks reveal vocalist Ben Knox-Miller’s range, which is at least equal to his band’s musicianship. The Horizon is a Beltway sports the record’s most memorable chorus, and is also probably the most accessible song. Suddenly forgoing the heart-wrenching crooning of the opening tracks, the singer unleashes a gravelly drawl on top of a banjo-led, Springsteen-ish defiant stomp. This is great stuff, a change of pace continued with the Kerouac-penned Home I’ll Never Be, reinforcing the associations with a great American road trip. On Cage the Songbird a desolate, almost funereal atmosphere replaces the defiant whisky-drinkin’ hoedown with a pleasant, natural-sounding reverb on all instruments and voice, ushering in some compositions which are far less dense and busy. Cage the Songbird’s themes of confinement counterpoint the rollicking American Dream freedom of the previous songs, which is followed by (Don’t) Tremble’s gentle acquiescence. The foot-stamping, harmonica-howling blues feel morphs into something straightforward, intimate-sounding and relatable.

To address some of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’s flaws, the album loses momentum somewhat towards its mid-section. After a strong opening, a quiet, uncomplicated middle stretch culminates in Music Box, which to be brutally honest is a bit pointless. After the fairly sparse (Don’t) Tremble, this instrumental track provides an interlude that the album doesn’t really need. Devoid both of Knox-Miller’s profound musings and his band’s beautifully constructed blues material, it spoils a flow already interrupted by the slightly-but-noticeably weaker (Don’t) Tremble. Similarly, the more traditional American rock of Champion Angel finds its powerful impact lessened and not enhanced by its unassuming forebear. The Low Anthem here get back to more uptempo material, but its crowd-pleasing, singalong style possibly lacks the depth and charm of other tracks. It’s up to the listener whether or not they allow the band this noisy, giddy thrill in which little musically interesting happens. Although more of the satisfying 12-bar rock ‘n’ roll bass licks that are occasionally dabbled with would’ve been welcome, I personally forgive Champion Angel’s rudimentary thrash.

It’s only on OMGCD that a gospel influence truly reveals itself. The track in question is quite simply brilliant; uplifting in its swampy, mud-splattered rootsiness and lack of complexity. Its choral, communal sound nicely sums up an evocative work. This track is also without doubt the perfect length, a finely-judged, masterfully-delivered piece of wonderfully understated work. The journey upon which The Low Anthem conduct the listener is a circular one, as with most voyages. We’re whirled through the past by Charlie Darwin, Home I’ll Never Be and OMGCD, before To Ohio (Reprise) brings us bang up to date. Again the band play with the conventions of modernity, sequencing the oldest-sounding track OMGCD, just before closer To Ohio (Reprise). Precise percussion which may be courtesy of a drum machine and the synthesized-sounding organ stabs lend the reprise a modern feel, recalling Heart-era Stars. It’s a complete surprise, proving that the band don’t just exist in an ‘American Gothic’-style world of sepia photographs and Appalachian cabins.

With The Low Anthem’s wheezing keys, picked guitars and mournful horns driving, the listener is taken on a journey that is both trans-American and trans-temporal. In conclusion, we may have strayed near the wrong side of the tracks once or twice, but it’s been engaging and evocative. Whether or not you’re a fan of American music, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin comes thoroughly recommended.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6.

To Ohio on Spotify
Ben Knox-Miller’s throaty purr is just perfect in this achingly spare lament. Beautifully reprised later on, To Ohio is one of the album’s many highlights.

Nonesuch Records
The Low Anthem on Myspace
The Low Anthem on Last.fm

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2 Responses to “The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin [Album]”

  1. Your blog is very professional, great work, Thank You

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