Smile Politely

The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin near perfect

It’s vain of me to admit, but each year I look forward to what the press will latch onto after Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. This gratification comes long after the initial excitement about the lineup, followed by the realization that I would rather drink hot tar than actually subject myself to Bonnaroo. (Sorry kiddos.) Most years of the festival’s relatively short lifespan I have felt bizarrely accomplished for being aware of many of the bands that shock and awe and surprise critics at the festival.

This year, however, The Low Anthem took even me by surprise.

Admittedly, I’ve been a bit under the radar this past year, what with teaching full time and dedicating myself to that, picking up a safe record now and then, but not coming anywhere near the one-a-week I’d been after as a student. But how could I not have heard of the sleepy little record with the clever title — Oh My God, Charlie Darwin — that seems to pull equally from its namesake, the naturalist, and Charles Schulz. The record has been reissued on Nonesuch, no less, a label whose tracks I follow for its unpredictable variety, if nothing else. Just a glance at its lineup finds standout acts Wilco, David Byrne, the Black Keys, as well as world music phenoms Toumani Diabate, Buena Vista Social Club, and Gilberto Gil.

But I disgress. My faults as a follower are certainly not the point.

Beginning with the bones of country blues and tin pan alley, The Low Anthem break down and rearrange familiar elements to draw on something unique: a mix of recognizable but unpredictable sounds, sometimes so in the softest of ways and other times in the loudest of ways. Like contemporaries the Felice Brothers, Wilco, and even the newer material of Tom Waits (whose name you will see again in this review), The Low Anthem draws from the palette of Americana in the truest sense, using its purest elements to dictate a strange, vaguely familiar canvas.

The band will draw comparisons to a slew of bands with a similar aire — Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Damien Jurado — and these comparisons are valid, but for everything these three modes of comparison share (lyrical beauty, austere quietness, pastoral vocals) there is a seemingly infinite number of things to set them apart from one another. One of The Low Anthem’s offsetting qualities is its other, more raucous side that recalls hard time barrooms, nights in jail, days stowed on a hobo train, as much as a trio of Providence twenty-somethings can know of those things. The whole experience of Oh My God is like walking around inside of a Tom Waits song; it’s no mistake, I’d expect, given that “Home I’ll Never Be” is credited to Kerouac/Waits (essentially, it’s a cover of the Waits version of the Kerouac poem, found originally on Jack Kerouac Reads “On The Road” and later found on Waits’s Orphans collection). This comparison is not to discredit The Low Anthem as a sort of derivative, however; The Low Anthem plows its own field quite well.

Lyrically, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin seems to dwell on its subject matter, asking us — as humans — what is going on with the world, and ultimately making a crass exclamation about what we’ve evolved into (thus the titular reference). The lyrics are beautiful — capturing the sentiment of the exclamation inherent in record’s title in a variety of ways. The most stirring of these examples are the first words spoken on the record: “Set the sails, I feel the winds a-stirring / Towards the bright horizon set the way / Cast your wreckless dreams upon our Mayflower / A haven from the world and her decay.”

But there is hope still. In songs like “(Don’t) Tremble,” whose lyrics boast, “If your pilot light should die / … / You will find the spark” and later in the chorus, “Do not tremble, do not sweat / For where then would you get?” Point in case, many of the lyrics here border on the simple, not to be confused with the dumbed-down. We, as listeners, can get these ideas veiled in poetry, which is one of The Low Anthem’s great qualities: the lyrics can have a simple beauty while still being profound; we don’t feel talked down to, nor do we feel superior.

Perhaps most admirable about The Low Anthem is their breadth. Here is a band who simply refuses to be simply one thing. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is a record of quietly monstrous proportions. While some songs can ease you into a sleep (all the while asking big questions), others – like “Champion Angel” – rock basic and do so with a freewheeling feeling. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is by no means a perfect record, but The Low Anthem does share qualities with your favorite bands (whoever they might be; this — I hope fairly — assumes that if you’ve made it this far in the review, you like rock ‘n’ roll). The band is both accessible and memorable; charming yet bleak – the list of traits that seem like paradoxes, but don’t have to be, goes on.

Though Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is not, in fact, a debut record — The Low Anthem’s debut was 2007’s self-released What the Crow BringsOh My God‘s recent reissue by Nonesuch, all said and done, introduces a band whose qualities are easy to admire: traditional but daring, and with a lot of brainpower and inventiveness up its members’ collective sleeve. When I stop to think about what I want out of a band, increasingly that quality is not to be puzzled (though that disorientation can be enlightening) but to be amazed that a band has done what it did with the same instruments as everyone else and yet sounds so much damn better at it; this deceiving seeming-simplicity is just as stunning as those who reach so far and wide to achieve that strange, unattainable goal of doing something no one has ever done before while still maintaining our interest as listeners.

I’ll stop now. But give Oh My God, Charlie Darwin a whirl; it’s damn good.

P.S. <quietly> Shh! Listen carefully! You can listen to many samples and download three full live shows in mp3 format (for free!) at the band’s web site. </quietly>


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