Learning How to Hear: The Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh

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Danny Alexander writes:

Rarely have I felt such a strong call to write about a band.  Even more rarely have I found it so hard to respond.

When The Low Anthem played one of Kansas City’s most popular night spots at the end of August, Kansas City Star critic Tim Finn wrote, “the crowd of about 100, give or take a dozen (the place was about half-full), deserves some rowdy applause for not making much noise during the band’s 75-minute set (give or take a few minutes). During one song, it was so quiet you could hear an ice cube drop into a bourbon glass.”

Of course, the band made that space.  Beginning the set with a dedication to hometown legend Charlie Parker, the three core members—lead singer, Ben Knox Miller and fellow multi-instrumentalists Jocie Adams and Jeff Prystowsky—started the show in a trash fire circle, singing into one microphone, the arresting séance of a song, “Ghost Woman Blues.”  That was followed by the even quieter “Matter of Time,” both newer songs, off the band’s 2011 album, Smart Flesh, not off of the breakthrough album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.  When they did turn to Charlie Darwin, on the third song, “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books,” band members also started in a very quiet place, with Jocie Adams’ clarinet searching above Prystowsky’s bowed bass.  Again, a talk with the dead and a talk about talking secured the quiet that made the show work.

And quiet is crucial to what the show and the Low Anthem are about.  As with Smart Flesh–wherein the sounds of the Providence, Rhode Island pasta factory where most of it was recorded become a part of the texture of the work, where Jocie Adams’s breaths on her three clarinet meditation, “Wire,” seem as much a part of the music as the clarinets themselves—the sounds of performance are as much a part of the music as any written notes.  In the Kansas City show, as the band took a kaleidoscope of different formations, including the sometimes addition of fourth member Mike Irwin, the quick change became a part of the show.  Most vivid of a number of such scrambles was Jocie Adams trying to free her antique cymbals from organ cords and any number of other instruments.  Like Japanese theater, foregrounding the artifice created an ability to move unusual places, such as that moment when front man Ben Knox Miller could actually play with the feedback between two cell phones (on the song “This Goddamned House”) and achieve a meditation on lost connections guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye.

Let me count the ways it shouldn’t work.  The Low Anthem is not just a bunch of college kids, but Brown University kids, playing two or three instruments at a time, singing a cross section of Americana in plaintive, reverential tones.  Even writing that description feels interminable.

But the show was just the opposite.  If anything, it was all over too soon.  The Low Anthem created an experience as captivating as close talk with a lover.  With songs hitting on everything from the fall of the Twin Towers to the psychic toll of mindless labor and the hostility of a world with no inherent meaning, the pillow talk never ceases to resonate and resonate deeply. 

What more than redeems the Low Anthem generally, and was certainly evident in this show, is a core belief in the human spirit not quite obscured by the landscape of despair.  It’s there in the way the band trusts the audience as a participant in the drama, and it’s there in every intonation of Smart Flesh.  While gravity pulls planes and towers and hippies and prophets to the ground, the Low Anthem sings of birds nesting beneath Gatling guns and high wire trips to heaven.  Though “Smart Flesh,” the title cut, offers a litany of limits and describes the world as a machine that alienates and even kills the soul, that soul nevertheless “loves itself wildly.”  In “Golden Cattle,” the trio of singers ask together, “As the blind walk the blind through the blackness of freedom/Who writes the songs that we all will be singing?”

Maybe it’s best that the band doesn’t offer anything that looks like an answer.  From stage to record, the call seems clear.  This music is an experiment in learning how to hear each other.  The answers that would most interest the Low Anthem no doubt lurk around the band in the darkness, in a silence made up of listeners. 

In keeping with that notion, after that KC show was over, the band indeed talked to the crowd. My last images of the band are Adams talking to another woman at the bar while Prystowsky and Miller sit on the lip of a window beneath a group of fans on the porch.  They both have grins on their faces, soaking up the moments.  Miller’s head is cocked, the way one does when he’s trying hard to hear.

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