Having listened to some great music of late, mostly created in artists’ bedrooms, Smart Flesh, the new offering from Providence, RI, quartet The Low Anthem signals a departure of sorts. It was originally recorded in an abandoned sauce factory down the road in Central Falls, and later on the studio moved to another large garage-like space. These empty, seemingly cavernous settings pervade the record and add a kind of alien chill to the proceedings. It has much to do with how the sounds rise and fall away. Notes reverberate and gently die while voices float in the ether, creating a sense of reverence and calm for most of the album.
For all that, there are a couple of occasions when the band loosens up, and this adds to a sense of the unexpected. The rocky side comes out on “Boeing 737”, which opens akin to the ending of a Revere song and builds like a headache-inducing version of Arcade Fire on speed through percussive overdose. The lyrics reference 9/11, but it’s hard to make much out of the density of sound, which may be why there aren’t any other songs like it here. The room could only take one of them. It’s far from typical of the songs on Smart Flesh, so if you were to hear the track in isolation, it might give you a quite different impression of the band’s general oeuvre.
The wry “Hey, All You Hippies!” is the only other number that gets a fulsome treatment. It rocks along in country mode, filled out by keyboards, and recalls Dylan’s old mates, The Band, in structure and delivery. Elsewhere on the record, though, the mood is far more downbeat. The opening track, “Ghost Woman Blues”, is a suitably melancholic tale delivered with due gravity with precise four-part harmonies and a fine clarinet fill from Jocie Adams, the standout among the four talented musicians here. Like many of the songs that follow, it has an old-time legitimacy about it.
“Apothecary Love” is more of a straight country song with steel guitar to the fore and a Dylanesque harmonica break to match the Nashville Skyline vocal. It rings with age and authenticity. Death is a pervading theme on the album, with lyrics referencing ghosts, flesh, ashes, and even formaldehyde! Yet, it’s not a complete down experience, because there is also something cheeringly human about the comradeship that shines through The Low Anthem’s music.
It’s hard to listen to “Burn” without Ben Knox Miller’s disconsolate tones summoning up Leonard Cohen. Plaintive banjo, swirling organ, and that instrument synonymous with all things eerie, the bowed saw, contribute to the gloom-laden sense of regret leading to self-realization expressed in the song. Knox Miller takes lead vocal duties with fellow founding member, Jeff Prystowsky and new recruit, Mat Davidson, adding harmonies along with Jocie Adams. Knox Miller’s falsetto is particularly good on sparse beauty “Love And Altar”, while the crystal vocal accompaniment of Adams adds a seal to this splendor.
The Jocie Adams-penned instrumental, “Wire”, bisects the album, showcasing her sublime woodwind playing. It’s a serene piece, perfect for contemplation, but positioned where it is, it rather breaks up the flow. By contrast, it might have worked well as a gentle epilogue to the record. The title track is left to that job. Preceded by the hymn-like “Golden Cattle”, “Smart Flesh” plays out over seven minutes as a kind of summary of The Low Anthem’s take on life as the precursor to a lonely death through some starkly evocative observation and imagery.
There are plenty of reference points you might like to apply to The Low Anthem: Dylan, Tom Waits, The Band, Gram Parsons, and Leonard Cohen could provide stopovers. The past is also evoked by the use of traditional instruments – pump organ, saw, Jew’s harp, harmonica, and various woodwinds alongside guitars, keys, and percussion. But largely, Smart Flesh comes across as an accomplished work with an equal eye to the future.