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The Low Anthem

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on March 9, 2011 · 1 comment

MASS MoCA, March 5
Who else is doing this? Though there’s indeed a fashionable subset of indie rockers who’ve traded in their skinny jeans for overalls, their mesh trucker hats for a hearty, back-to-the-land bumpkin chic, it’s actually a shame that the Low Anthem could accidentally be misfiled under this heading. No one else sounds like this band. And when you consider the hat and vest worn by one its members that is fashioned from a burlap sack, no one else looks like them either.

Oh my god: Jeff Prystowski of the Low Anthem. Photo by Jeremy D. Goodwin

The cynical observer considers factors like the band’s pedigree (its two founding members met on the hardscrabble grounds of Brown University), the various floppy farmer hats and fashionable mustaches employed at different times, and searches for a way to poke holes through the façade, to dismiss it as a pose. But none of the reflexive objections stick. The Low Anthem are DIY right down to their hand-letterpressed CD covers and T-shirts, individually screened at the show. But most important, you just can’t deflect the power of music this good.

Throughout the band’s revelatory, 100-minute performance at MASS MoCA on Saturday, not a moment felt affected. The sublime blend of sounds achieved by the quartet’s extensive stock of vintage instruments—from pump organ to musical saw, clarinets to jaw harp—felt as light as a growing shadow and as heavy as history itself. It was old and new and strange and eerie, of no place in particular, but perhaps summoned from some murky place in our collective unconscious.

“Burn,” from the band’s recently released third LP, creaked open on the strength of Ben Knox Miller’s quiet vocals and tiptoeing banjo, Mat Davidson’s understated electric bass, Jocie Adams’ haunting accents on the hammered dulcimer, and the spine-shivering squeal conjured by occasional guest Graham Harlan Smith from a saw. When Jeff Prystowsky’s hard-struck drums kicked in to propel, but not overpower, it was clear that these songs can fly upon the slightest breeze, quietly accelerating until they leave the ground to soar so close to the earth.

The band’s signature sound was most evocatively conjured on songs like “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books,” featuring chilling lines from Adams on clarinet, Miller’s bed of dreamy haze on pump organ, and a confident, sinewy acoustic bassline from Prystowsky. The addition of Davidson’s musical saw, absent from the song’s studio incarnation on their breakthrough 2009 album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, felt so appropriate as to be self-evident. The aural balance is remarkable; the sound has just enough heft to truly transport, but never feels fragile.

When the tempo and volume increased for a barnhouse stomp through Rev. Gary Davis’ “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?” it was still like a quiet scream, a balance between the need to shake up the pace and a desire to stay firmly rooted in the pervasive sense of shivering daydream. “The Snake and the Lightning Rod” ventured closer to country rock, but surged with ramshackle momentum, making it clear that the Low Anthem are getting closer and closer to forging a more rocking element to their sound that maintains the distinctive poetry of its more frequent, quiet spaces.

As if testing this expansion through a controlled experiment, the quartet returned for an encore with their second take on “Home I’ll Never Be,” a song with lyrics by Jack Kerouac and music by Tom Waits that appeared earlier in the night in its usual guise as a ragged, uptempo rave-up. That arrangement has become a rusty warhorse in the band’s live set, but the stripped-down encore version, with the band grouped around a single vocal mic at the stage lip, was a revelation. The song transformed from defiant proclamation to road-weary, death-haunted lament, becoming richer and more affecting in the process.

The night closed with an almost unbearably gorgeous take on “Charlie Darwin,” underpinned by Knox’s elastic falsetto. “Oh my god, the water’s cold and formless,” he sang, evoking a nagging fear drifting out from some dark crag in the American nightmare. It’s not light entertainment, but it’s too great to ignore. Mustaches notwithstanding.

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