The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
Record Label: Nonesuch Records
Release Date: February 22nd, 2011
Some lines just shock you to attention, like this one from “Boeing 737:” “I was in the air when the towers came down, in a bar on the 84th floor.” It’s not that nobody’s sang about 9/11 before, but when it’s done with grief like it is here, with a Dylan sound-alike cawing the words and loud instruments pulsing in the background, it becomes something memorable, sublime and appropriately tragic. Welcome to The Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh, where folk music doesn’t need to be reinvented for it to come alive – just performed. If you’re looking for a solid folk spooker to open the year, your search ends here.
“Boeing 737” is powerful in its rowdiness, but the rest of the album rarely gets loud because The Low Anthem are even better at painting hushed Americana landscapes. Some of these are just classic, unadulterated folk strummers; “Ghost Woman Blues,” “Apothecary Love” and “Matter of Time” would easily fit in your run-of-the-mill western. But like on their last album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, the band is too diverse to settle on one style for the entire album. This time around, they’re more subtle, separating their soft folk side with an even softer personality: Spacey crooners that tip their hats to Bon Iver. “Love and Altar” is exceedingly beautiful the way its dual falsettos whisper over nothing but naked strums.
Ultimately, Smart Flesh is several cuts above its peers because it understands its limitations, but pushes the boundaries anyway. Ok, folk is supposed to be subdued, but what if we subdued it even further and cut out the vocals altogether (“Wire”)? What if we went beyond the standard instruments and threw in some clarinet (“Golden Cattle”)? What if we sandwiched a louder track between two skeletal ones (“Hey, All You Hippies!”)? The beauty of these questions is that The Low Anthem makes all the ideas work. “Wire” is breathtakingly forlorn, “Golden Cattle,” brooding and lovable thanks to the clarinet, “Hey, All You Hippies!,” an icy splash of noise after four straight tracks of mellow. It makes you wonder why more bands don’t experiment.
But like many of its peers, Smart Flesh thrives on ol’ Americana pathos. It’s mournful, it’s bitter, it’s creepy. I’m still injected with shivers every time the title track murmurs the word “flesh.” At the end of the day, that’s probably what you crave the most from a folk record – you want it to make you feel. The Low Anthem master the art of the “feel” here, and then add some creativity to make sure it doesn’t go stale. On paper, that’s a recipe for decency, but in sound, Smart Flesh is a dynamic triumph.
Glad it does that for you! I know where you're coming from. Folk is kind of like that sometimes, it doesn't really click immediately.
yeah. i've never really listened to folk, but it's required at our radio station to do a review once a week, so i get to hear all different assortments of music that i usually don't listen to. thanks again for a great review!