(Self-released, CD, digital download)
The product of a bleak midwinter spent on Rhode Island’s summertime paradise Block Island (think Martha’s Vineyard, only less so), The Low Anthem ’s provocatively titled Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is a study in paradoxes. Unquestionably modern with flashes of orchestral indie flair, the album is intimately rooted in traditional folk in both theme and style. The result is an artistic marvel as challenging and comforting to the mind as it is to the senses.
The album’s opening salvo, “Charlie Darwin,” is an elegiac ballad, equal parts bucolic sea shanty and choral requiem. Lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s rich, reedy falsetto tenor airs gracefully over lilting acoustic guitar. A mournful harmonica shines intermittently, as if a lighthouse warning of dangerous shoals. Densely intricate, atmospheric harmonies surround, bathing the tune in melancholy warmth.
The next track, “To Ohio,” maintains the opener’s ethereal, old-time quality. But this time around, troubled seas are replaced by winding railways. Acoustic guitar lazily churns over droning pump organ and a twisting clarinet. Again, Jeff Prystowski and Jocie Adams’ harmonies are both full and delicate.
In a recent interview with the New Haven Advocate, Miller pointed to the juxtaposition of the past, present and future as a primary influence in this album’s creation. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on the next track, “The Horizon Is a Beltway.” The rousing tune is reminiscent of original Irish punkers The Pogues — sorry, Dropkick Murphys — with the chameleonic Miller a passable, and perhaps more eloquent, Shane McGowan.
“Home I’ll Never Be” is a barnstorming cover of a Tom Waits/Jack Kerouac collaboration. Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie would be proud.
Following the baleful “Ticket Taker,” the inextricable link of the future to the past is once again front and center — thematically, anyway — on “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books.”
“(Don’t) Tremble” is perhaps the most stripped-down work on the record, relying on the timeworn familiarity of voice, guitar and harmonica paired with efficient but effective lyricism.
“Music Box” provides a brief instrumental interlude before the distortion-charged “Champion Angel” sets us up for the disc’s last stand.
“Cage the Songbird” subtly builds in a swirl of organ, voice and reverb-washed guitar, and acts as bridge to the immediate history of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin itself. “Omgcd” — get it? — and “To Ohio (Reprise)” close the album in blissfully lucid fashion.
Catch The Low Anthem Wednesday, September 10, at The Monkey House in Winooski, with local alt-whatever collective Cannon Fodder.