On the Low Anthem's second and most recent album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, the Providence, R.I., group combines heightened emotional peaks with solemn, nearly hymnal valleys.
Founding members Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky, both avid history buffs, first met up in the halls of Ivy League academia. As songwriters, the two Brown University students (who were later joined by Jocie Adams and newest member Mat Davidson) offer up an elegant combination of poetic anguish and Ken Burnsian storytelling. And on Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, they set out with the deepest reverence to explore the plight of a brilliant mind like Charles Darwin's and the restless musicality of more modern geniuses, namely themselves.
Critics, who quickly labeled it a "concept album," began to drool all over it. NPR declared the opening track, "Charlie Darwin," best song of 2009 (before the year was even half over), and the requisite festival invites soon followed. Miller even found himself eulogizing Darwin the man on a Studio 360 episode.
Luckily, the album is good enough to stand up to the scrutiny. It's the kind of record that's perfect for drinking alone, or in the case of a few, jarring bar songs like the raucous "The Horizon is a Beltway," drinking with buddies.
"There's something new I haven't heard yet," says the genial, mustachioed Prystowsky. "See, there's always something new to say about the record."
Suddenly a seasoned road warrior, Prystowsky says he's now dreaming of a trip to the Egyptian pyramids once this summer tour is over.
"We played a gig in Indianapolis where the inside is all decorated with hieroglyphics and pyramids," says Prystowsky. "I'd like to see the real thing, that's all."
It's an indulgence he's earned. After last year's whirlwind, Prystowsky and crew finally got down to business, recording and, as he puts it, "over-writing."
"We've had so long to sit on [the new material]," he says of the planned September release. "Every time we wanted to make it, we had a tour to play. We recorded 30 songs. We've been waiting a couple years to get to the studio, so it all just kind of came out."
When Prystowsky says "studio," what he means is "abandoned pasta sauce factory." It's a Providence warehouse that, he says, gave them a unique sound that infected all of their songs and helped bring together their fiery, loud-as-hell rock songs and their melancholy ballads.
"It's all over the record," says Prystowsky. "Whether we played loud or soft, that sound is always there, and you'll be able to hear it. After two years of playing on the road, and playing both rock 'n roll and folk songs, I think we've started to bridge that gap."
The surprising truth is that the elements of this last album came together more or less by accident. And despite photos that have been taken of the band's elaborately diagrammed blackboard in their rehearsal space for the new one, the new one isn't as calculated as one might imagine.
"In terms of the 'concept record' [where] you listen to this record and play it all at the same time and everything matches up, it's not really about that," says Prystowsky. "But then again, we are trying to have something that makes the collection of songs related to one another. .... A theme, if you will."