The always evolving sounds of The Low Anthem 

Survival of the Original-est

Survival of the Original-est

You'd think a band whose breakthrough album bore the title Oh My God, Charlie Darwin would get more grief from the God squad than from the secular humanist crowd. But The Low Anthem's experience indicates otherwise. According to Ben Knox Miller, principle singer, songwriter and (like everyone in the band) multi-instrumentalist: "Actually, the reaction we've gotten the least of — which is kind of surprising to me — is religious people being offended by it. What we've actually gotten more of is, we've had some atheist hecklers in our sets."

He laughs remembering a scene-stealing moment during one of the band's shows in Scotland. An audience member apparently had a strong attachment to the Darwin references, and just as strong distaste for gospel-influenced songs they'd included in their set.

"We had somebody ... get up in the back of a club and just launch into a diatribe about how sick and tired he was of all this Jesus talk," Miller says. "I think he said, 'Man is made of mortal soil, and to dust we return. ... Let's start living in the here and now,' or something. He just gave this epic speech. Just to hear somebody react that strongly was amazing. And of course, the next songs we played was 'Charlie Darwin,' just as it happened to work out."

The members of The Low Anthem don't really seem like antagonistic types, so much as a meticulous, multitalented, heady bunch. Miller and Jeff Prystowsky teamed up while they were students at Brown University sharing jazz-spinning duties on their college radio station's graveyard shift. Then they recruited Jocie Adams, the three of them taken with the idea of exploring innovative, DIY possibilities for chamber music.

They cut their first self-released album, What the Crow Brings, in their apartments, and the next, OMG, CD — which Nonesuch picked up after the band had hand-silkscreened the first pressing of 2,000 themselves — in a vacant Rhode Island home they could only reach by ferry. Their fourth member, Mat Davidson, joined about a year ago, before the Providence-based band started work on their third album, Smart Flesh — this time in a cavernous, unoccupied spaghetti sauce factory.

The Low Anthem have thrived skirting the mainstream. Which is not to say that their music's gone unnoticed — they have, after all, played Letterman. But theirs is a reflective, self-conscious relationship with pop culture.

"Commercial pop music, really, our band exists on an island away from all that," Miller says. "I couldn't name a Lady Gaga song, or even any of her contemporaries. And what we're working on is completely different."

Miller often writes songs with theoretical heft behind them. His ruminations on how a little old idea like natural selection has shaped civilized attitudes during the last century and a half have yielded solemn, fetching postmodern folk songs like "Charlie Darwin" and "To the Ghosts Who Write History Books." The meaning of the lyrics may not always be self-evident, but the words invite further consideration.

As to whether we should expect similarly high-concept material on Smart Flesh, Miller says, speaking in general terms, "All of our songs are so interconnected, and the albums, in a certain way, read more like a book — or like a play, I guess, is a better analogy — in that no little snapshot can give you the picture unless you see the context. But I think that for some of the headiness of the songwriting, also a lot of the emotionalism can be very direct. Even if you haven't gone through the process of working out the angle of the songwriting, you can still be struck in a very immediate way by the feelings that are passing by you — I hope."

Intellectually restless, The Low Anthem have no interest in playing their songs the same way night after night. Miller, Prystowsky, Adams and Davidson put their varied musical talents to good use, toying with textures and shifting among the many instruments in their traveling treasure trove. They carry an array of instruments with them, including a pump organ, a harmonium, a musical saw and multiple clarinets.

"Obviously, there are limitations," Miller says, "because you can't have everything. Especially the kinds of clubs we're playing — they're not equipped to mic up 25 instruments. ... A lot of people, they want to have something to change up their set, so they'll switch between acoustic and electric guitar, maybe throw in a banjo for a few songs. But we've kind of taken that idea to the farthest extreme that we can get away with practically. The worst thing is to start imitating yourself."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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