Like a freight train steadily gathering steam, there’s been a steady but inexorable buzz building around The Low Anthem. Everyone from Whispering Bob to Steve Lamacq has been singing this Rhode Island three-piece’s praises, and they’ve drawn gushing parallels with musical contemporaries including Horse Feathers, Iron and Wine and their Bella Union label-mates, Fleet Foxes.
Such heady comparisons certainly aren’t unjustified. The band’s latest album, Oh My God Charlie Darwin, is one of the year’s finest: a whistle-stop romp through the annals of American music, taking in everything from hillbilly stomp (The Horizon is a Beltway) to railroad ballads (To Ohio), hymnal devotionals (Cage The Songbird) and apocalyptic allegories à la Dylan or Neil Young (Ticket Taker, Charlie Darwin). Rarely has a band seemed so steeped in their own musical heritage – a fact that’s clearly not lost on the band’s bassist, Jeff Prystowsky.
“We definitely wear our influences on our sleeve,” he admits. “Not that we’re consciously trying to preserve traditions – we’re not a revivalist or preservationist type band – but bits of the old come out regardless. Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Young. We love that good old stuff.”
Formed in Providence, Rhode Island, by Prystowsky (“jazz bassist, baseball scholar”) and Ben Knox Miller (“folk musician, poet, painter”), the band released its eponymous debut album in June 2006 before hooking up with fellow Brown University alumnus Jocie Adams (“classical composer, NASA technician”) in late 2007. A second release, What the Crow Brings, earned them further admirers, but it was their 2008 follow-up, Oh My God Charlie Darwin, which really defined their musical direction.
Recorded during a ten-day sojourn to the wintry beach resort of Block Island (where ‘the only sounds were the rush of sea wind against the panes of the cabin and the crackling hum of the woodstove”), the album plays out like a bitter-sweet soundtrack to the world’s last days: the band has expressed an ‘obsession’ with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the album is riddled with apocalyptic imagery – skies on fire, crumbling buildings, flooded lands. But it’s the complex, wilfully playful instrumentation which really makes this album sing: listen close and you’ll discern everything from the mournful strains of oboes, clarinets and alto horns to the hoedown chug of a WWI-era pump organ.
While the band refuse to be drawn on the album’s lyrical darkness (“the more you talk about it, the more it disappears,” Jeff muses cryptically), they’re more comfortable discussing its musical experimentation. “We’re obsessed with instruments. The only problem is, we don’t know how to play them all, so we learn what we need to get by. A few chords here, a line there. ‘Complex instrumentation with simple fingerings’ is what we do.”
Initially self-distributed (with a silk-screened cover designed and printed by the band), Oh My God Charlie Darwin was subsequently snapped up by Nonesuch (home to Wilco, The Black Keys and The Magnetic Fields) and remixed by renowned producer Bob Ludwig, before receiving a European release courtesy of Bella Union. The album has since earned the band heavyweight industry attention on both sides of the pond, including rave reviews in Uncut, Mojo and Rolling Stone, major tours of the US and Europe and, of course, a hotly-anticipated appearance at End of the Road.
Despite the departure of their erstwile drummer Cyrus Scofield (who’s recently traded in his sticks to work in a Buddhist retreat), things are looking pretty rosy for the Low Anthem – but I wonder whether the band ever worry about the pressures their newfound success might have on their work.
“I think it depends on where you find that hunger,” Jeff ponders. “It shouldn’t come from sitting around complaining that no one knows who you are. That’s not true for us anymore, and it’s really good that that option is gone. But we never feel settled with our music – we’re always meddling and experimenting, battling with the arrangements until the very last minute. For the first month after the record comes out, we’re horrified and consider alternate career options. Then a little time goes by and we learn how to love it again.”