The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh [Album Review]

by Woody on February 9, 2011

Looking forward to anything can be brutal. Often times, there’s a disconnect between the lofty unattainable vision you created in your head and what is delivered to you in reality. Think the first time you got laid, the McDLT, and Waterworld. But every so often, the stars align and you are delivered everything you expected and a whole mess more. Ladies and gentlemen, The Low Anthem just delivered one of those moments.

HearYa Live Session producer, Steve Shirk, once labeled The Low Anthem as “The Masters of Restraint.” It’s an apt description. The band is meticulous and every note is given tremendous forethought. But the beauty of The Low Anthem is that, while they do create carefully crafted arrangements, they also carry an organic street husker sound. It’s easy to picture them performing quietly in a subway station, singing before a hat full of coins and scattered dollar bills.

Smart Flesh is the new album and will be released on Feburary 22nd. It’s  amazing. I wanted to break it down song-by-song, Dr. Jack style, but after countless listens and discoveries, I realized I would be doing you a disservice. This is an album that warrants your complete attention.

I will give you a few of the moments that stopped me in my tracks:

  • The opening line of Boeing 737 over pounding drums and clanging cymbals. As a New Yorker who lost a good friend during 9/11, that opening line floored me: “I was in the air when the towers came down/ In a bar on the 84th floor.”
  • On “Love & Altar,” I love how Ben’s voice is barely audible over the acoustic guitar until backing vocals come in to lift Ben’s voice. So subtle, yet so amazing.
  • The way that “Wire,” the 6th tune out of 11, acts as a sorbet, cleaning the palette before the second half of the album begins. It reminds me of music set to the best baseball movie ever, The Natural.
  • “Apothecary Love.” I have been humming this twangy number since hearing it last year at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. It sounds as effortless as breathing and has my favorite line of the album: “First she shot me with whiskey, then chased me with gin / Swore I was the cure for the shape she was in.”
  • “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes.” The subtle radio/TV sounds in the background that give the feeling that Ben is singing to the urn in an empty house.

Another key piece of this story is where the album was recorded – in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island. Ben Knox Miller, with band-mates Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams, and newest member, Mat Davidson spent ten days in this “studio.” And when the sun went down, the cold crept in and as Jocie Adams describes:

The cold cuts through your heart, slows your whole body down. It made us focus. Some of our songs got slower.

At times during the recording, they placed room mics hundreds of feet away to catch all the sound of the abandoned factory – floorboard groans and the wind against the windows. Miller’s commentary on the surroundings:

The space was really the main instrument for the whole record. The resonance was chilling. Everything after that was a secondary instrument€”a choice of what tool we used to activate this beautiful instrument that we were inhabiting.

The Low Anthem are one of America’s most important bands and they’ve taken a major step forward on Smart Flesh. The album is a slow growing addiction. We scrounged up some samplin’ media below.

Stream “Hey, All You Hippies!:

The Low Anthem – Apothecary Love (Live at Loppen, Copenhagen)

The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh (Live at Loppen, Copenhagen)

The Low Anthem – I’ll Take Out Your Ashes (Live at Loppen, Copenhagen)

The Low Anthem – Apothecary Love (Live at The Variety Playhouse, Atlanta)

The Low Anthem – I’ll Take Out Your Ashes (Live at Variety Playhouse, Atlanta)

The Low Anthem – Ghost Woman Blues (Official Video)

The Low Anthem – Ghost Woman Blues (Live on Letterman)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

oz February 9, 2011 at 10:03 am

Great review Woodman. “Boeing 737” is my favorite song right now – probably will be my favorite of the year when its said and done. It’s so original, violent, angry. The lyrics, crashing cymbals and fierce vocals are about as much emotion as I can handle. You can feel the earth shake. On an album with a very low pulse, this song is like a heart attack.

This band is so special. Can’t wait for live session #2.

Pablohoney February 9, 2011 at 11:32 am

Great review of an astonishingly good band. Looking forward to catching them again soon.

Mike February 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm

I like these guys as much anyone, but to say that
“The Low Anthem are one of America’s most important bands” is going overboard.

Woody February 10, 2011 at 9:55 am

Apparently not as much as me. But fair enough, its just my opinion. I think The Low Anthem are not only insanely talented musicians; but many bands could learn a thing a two from them. The ability to create space and not clutter their ideas is to me; amazing. They’re able to give their songs room to breathe which is a very underrated and under-utilized aspect in today’s music.

I also find Ben to be one of the most interesting and well-spoken people I have met in this industry. Many bands and music industry execs could learn from them in terms of how they took their band from Point A to a label like Nonesuch.

Mike February 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Agreed – less is always more. Really looking forward to the new album and seeing them when they come through Philly with Iron & Wine.

BTW- don’t miss this Iron & Wine tour if you get the chance. The new material is great live.

Thanks for everything and keep up the great work!

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