Smart Flesh

The Low Anthem, Live Session #88

by oz on May 2, 2011

9/11 was suddenly thrust back into our minds last night and today as we learn the details surrounding Osama Bin Laden’s death. We were collectively shaken to our core after the fall of the Twin Towers and the events of 9/11 inspired lyrics in many songs released in 2001 and the years following. Songs like “Jesus Etc” by Wilco are aural fossils of the time period, with words like “Tall buildings shake/ Voices escape singing sad sad songs” serving as subtle artifacts for future generations to explore.

A decade later, The Low Anthem released Smart Flesh and a song called “Boeing 737.” It’s my favorite song of the year – my favorite in recent memory. It opens with a violent fury of cymbals crashing over trumpet, guitar, and pump organ and lyrics that would make Guthrie proud. The song places a character high up in the World Trade Center where he buys a drink for Phillipe Petit, a tightrope walker known for his epic “man on a wire” tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in the 70’s:

I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737

You’ll then find lyrical genius in the chorus:

Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.

The literary verse is open to interpretation, but it paints a picture for resolution and a more peaceful existence.  “Boeing 737” has the capacity to weaken your knees or reduce you to tears and its song craft is triumphant – almost prophetic. If it had been written today, inspired by last night’s events, the song would make total sense. I hate to ignore the beauty in other songs in this session, especially “Love and Altar,” but 737 is a personal song obsession.

It’s hard to put into words what The Low Anthem’s music means to me. There isn’t a band out there that I’ve listened to more frequently or with as much focus over the years. I continue to listen to their entire discography, including What The Crow Brings, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, and now Smart Flesh and find more to explore each time. I frequently revisit our first session with The Low Anthem to hear “Charlie Darwin,” my favorite recorded version of that song (perhaps because I was in the live room videotaping). And now here we are with a fresh batch of songs off of 2011’s Smart Flesh.

The band poses some challenges in a session because each musician in the band rotates to play a different instrument on each song. Allow me to illustrate with notes from session producer, Steve Shirk:

“Matter of Time”
Ben: Vocals and Pump Organ
Jocie: Clarinet
Jeff: Upright Bass
Matt: Saw

“Boeing 737”
Ben: Vocals and Guitar
Jocie: Vocals Pump Organ and Trumpet
Jeff: Drums
Matt: Vocals and Electric Bass
Graham: Banjo

“Burn”
Ben:  Vocals and Banjo
Jocie:  Dulcimer run through a guitar amp
Jeff: Drum Kit
Matt: Electric Bass
Graham: Saw

And then on “Love and Altar,” the band gathered around Shirk’s vintage RCA 44bx ribbon microphone – Ben on acoustic guitar, Matt on Banjo, Jeff on Jaw Harp and Jocie on the faintly heard Hammond Organ. Shirk  fed the recorded signal through an EMT 140 plate reverb. When he played a rough mix back for the band a few minutes later, he mixed in loads of reverb against the dry signal.  Worried that it might be too much, he checked with Ben Knox Miller to get his opinion.  Ben said to give it some more. Jocie then chimed in and coined it “the underwater mix.”  I like that.

Enough gushing. We felt honored to have The Low Anthem back in the studio.

The Low Anthem Band Introduction

Exclusive: The Low Anthem – Matter Of Time

Exclusive: The Low Anthem – Boeing 737

Exclusive: The Low Anthem – Love and Altar

Exclusive: The Low Anthem – Burn

Download The Low Anthem HearYa Live Session as a zip file.

Video: The Low Anthem – Boeing 737 (Live at Shirk Music + Sound)

Video: The Low Anthem – Love and Altar (Live at Shirk Music + Sound)

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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)

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