Archive for the low anthem

The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

The title Welcome Joy can be read in a variety of differing ways; a sanctimonious religious command, an open-armed embrace or a positive observation concerning happiness perhaps. The Cave Singers’ sophomore album manages to convey the latter two without pretension, providing a lush and melodic listen. Former Pretty Girls Make Graves bassist Derek Fudesco has said in previous interviews that his guitar parts with The Cave Singers are essentially just bass riffs. This rings true on Welcome Joy, whose circular guitar arrangements inhabit the groove-based repetition of the most effective bass lines.

Welcome Joy begins with the appropriately-titled Summer Light, which recalls the look and feel of the album’s cover, its summery and warm touches of organ in the unfolding verses evoking the artworks’ orange tones. The cover is a nostalgic view of the world through an aperture that banishes modern figures like keyboards to the shot’s background. Similarly, Summer Light’s keys sound analogue, with folkish guitar and vocal arrangements that are also pleasingly old-fashioned; the evocative name equally recalls the song’s sound and feel. Female vocals in the background of the chorus line, “They’re damned if they’re right and they’re damned if they’re wrong, they don’t mind” are particularly divine. Singer Pete Quirk’s lyrics frequently stand out as strongly poetic, “Dance in the doldrums of each new day” further linking the semantic use of orange palettes to the visual. Leap’s frantic pulloff-hammer on riff is great, effortlessly propulsive when coupled with Marty Lund’s urgent drum track. Quirk’s raspy countrified vocals are excellent, mixed to be less gratingly abrasive than on debut Invitation Songs. A bridge sees the track really hitting its stride with a cymbal hit as bass enters and harmonica squawks in. The song evolves enchantingly as it forges ahead into another verse more urgent than the first; The Cave Singers clearly know where their strengths lie and adhere to their formula. Shrine’s quiet droning chorus is a departure and also a welcome one, ensuring that whilst verging on being formulaic at times, Welcome Joy steers clear of being predictable. This track is a case in point that these aren’t complex songs; they’re very simple, and I doubt the band would have a problem with that observation. The riff and appropriately Eastern percussion of Shrine follow on from Summers Light’s blissful glow, easy and reassuring in its tones. A middle eight briefly presses on noisily to skilfully maintain momentum before settling back into its meandering flow and quiet rumbling bass.

The most fleshed-out song yet Hen of the Woods incorporates nice distant rim shots and a riff reminiscent of Daughters of the Soho Riots or Start a War by The National. In its outro the track quickens to a country-tinged Sleater-Kinney-style guitar solo set against a shifting drum shuffle. Again the lyrics are carefully arranged, well written, considered and thoughtful on lines such as “Evening comes, it’s a curtain and a shawl”. They’re joyfully and sincerely delivered, again evocative of the album’s aged artwork in scenes of American prairies, sunsets and romance. Quirk sounds like an American David Gray on the pleasantly primitive Beach House – yes I know, these comparisons are meant to be achingly indie and obscure, but if the boot fits – even if the “just myself/no one else” chorus couplet is desperately unoriginal. I Don’t Mind, with its gentle high-capoed acoustic strum and more strident drums, follows Hen of the Woods’ lead in sounding less like Welcome Joy’s sketchier tracks. Despite the songs with a fuller drum sound generally being that bit more immediate (most tracks settle for a sparing New Slang-esque percussion track), this is arguably one of the album’s least memorable moments. VV sounds a bit like that cute I Tried to do Handstands for You iPod advert song with its calypso acoustic chord progression. The electric guitar riff recalls that from The Postal Service’s Recycled Air, only obviously less robotic; the chord sequence’s nicely merged variation in the bridge is particularly organic-sounding.

Welcome Joy sounds a lot more expansive than Invitation Songs, which sounded strangled at times by its limited component parts. At the Cut proves a natural punkabilly progression from previous track Leap’s folkabilly drumming, its rambling jangle reminiscent of the UK’s Sons and Daughters. There’s a certain world-weary wisdom to the singers voice here, mirrored by the vintage guitar’s ‘50’s tone in its solo. At the Cut is also a bit like Franz Ferdinand’s Ulysses in places (no, seriously), perhaps providing a bit of a British connection, which should go down well at this winter’s Shred Yr Face tour. Townships is simply gorgeous, an affective highlight which is probably the best track on the album. It features the most natural sounding riff, the least metronomic and most irregular, and a great semi-acoustic guitar tone. Quirk’s vocal is also one of his most natural deliveries, charmingly imperfect and almost croaky in places. The higher timbre to his multi-tracked vocal lends the track a transcendent, skyline-surfing feel. Chiming guitars coil around a semi-chanted chorus, recalling Fleet Foxes’s earthy yet spiritual melancholy sound. Bramble closes the album with a complex fingerpicked acoustic guitar intro resembling that of Leap a tad too closely for comfort. But on the positive side, like all songs on Welcome Joy there is nothing more to Bramble than there needs to be. It’s a very stark and natural beauty that this album carries, like a beautiful model photographed without makeup or a woodland copse untouched by human hands. A natural reverb on the vocal lends it a stark and atmospheric demo-like quality.

When reviewing The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, I briefly considered whether or not to recommend it to fans of The Cave Singers. This was on the basis that both bands have a stark, unembellished and definitively American sound; they also exhibit the same rootsy, lo-fi sensibilities, which produce their latest records’ appealing personalities. However, I foolishly decided against doing so, due to my belief that Cave Singers were probably too little-known over here at this point. I anticipate being proved wrong in thinking so in the near future, after the exposure the aforementioned Shred Yr Face jaunt and this latest excellent release will gain them.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6

Townships on Spotify
Taking the best elements of other highlights Summer Light and Hen of the Woods, Townships practically sounds like it was painted.

Matador
The Cave Singers on Myspace

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

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by David Hall


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