The Low Anthem is late. Hours late. I sit at a crowded worktable in singer‚ songwriter‚ and producer Brett Hughes' converted barn loft‚ among the wreckage of Jewish deli takeout. We discuss songwriting and demos he recorded recently with Surprise Me Mr. Davis. The room is lit with soft‚ westerly light. Amplifiers‚ guitars‚ mic stands and cables surround us; tables and shelves are thick with jars of paintbrushes‚ X-acto knives‚ markers and pens -- the makings of art and music. Our plan was to record some performances and an interview with The Low Anthem‚ but they're somewhere between Albany and Burlington. We have no idea where.
The Low Anthem's music often sounds like transmission from another time‚ a chance find on an old transistor radio. Their new record‚ Oh My God‚ Charlie Darwin‚ weaves softly picked and strummed acoustic guitar with hushed vocals‚ clarinet‚ stand-up bass‚ trumpet‚ harmonica‚ and pump organ. The stories on Darwin could have been taken from the dry‚ yellowed pages of a found novel‚ or the diary of a Dust Bowl refugee -- fitting for a band that can play most of their songs without plugging in. The band's phonograph-era balladry‚ established on their first album‚ What The Crow Brings‚ evolves and mutates on Darwin. Though their hearts are still sewn to their sleeves‚ the reveries are broken up by gutbucket stomps on which singer Ben Miller's voice breaks into a gravely bark‚ as if his songs' lovelorn folkies have crashed headlong into the mad joys and sorrows of moonshine.
Darwin was recorded during a sleepless ten-day winter session on Block Island‚ Rhode Island. Jessie Lauter‚ a friend and student at the Clive Davis School of Music in New York City‚ helped produce the album. "It was really a big undertaking‚" Miller says. "We put a bunch of gear in big barrels and took them across on the ferry. It was really tense‚ because we were trying to get a lot done‚ and we were all on top of each other. There was a lot of friction‚ a lot of hostility. I think that tension‚ that buried anger‚ can be good for a record. I think you can hear it." Miller likens the sessions to a "little failed utopia‚" which he says goes with the theme of the record. "The songs are definitely caught between some nihilistic way of looking at ideas and ethics based on how all of our values are applied to the same system of natural selection as humans are‚ and a kind of gospel‚ instinctive longing for community and sense of common purpose. In the songs‚ there is that tension between Charlie Darwin and the cold light of science -- and our spiritual cores."
Back in Vermont‚ footsteps finally fall on the barn stairs‚ and Ben Miller appears‚ wrinkled and slightly dazed‚ as if he just woke up. He holds two books in his hand: Woody Guthrie's autobiography‚ Bound for Glory‚ and a volume of James Wright's poems. Following him is Jeff Prystowsky‚ his multi-instrumentalist songwriting partner and co-founder of The Low Anthem. They're both quiet and have that tired look that musicians have when traveling between gigs. They are gracious when introducing themselves‚ and quickly become Ben and Jeff -- not just Miller and Prystowsky.
Bandmates Jocie Adams and Cyrus Scofield soon arrive‚ and we haul even more gear into the crowded recording space. All four musicians each play several instruments‚ and soon the band is discussing set-ups with Brett. Recording the band is a complicated affair‚ as each song can feature any number of configurations -- trumpet‚ clarinet‚ acoustic guitar‚ electric guitar‚ harmonica‚ acoustic bass‚ electric bass‚ pump organ‚ Tibetan singing bowl‚ E-Flat horn‚ drum kit‚ up to four harmonizing voices‚ and so on.
The band chooses to start the session with "This God Damn House" from What the Crow Brings. Ben pulls out the E-flat horn‚ which Jocie describes later as "a high school band kind of horn." She is playing clarinet; Cyrus is on trumpet. Jeff sits behind a small wooden pump organ. He works the pedals with his feet‚ pushing air from the organ's bellows through its reeds. A mic inside the organ picks up the sound of the reeds and sends it through a small guitar amp; it bristles with distortion. Brett looks up and says‚ "That sounds appropriately nasty." We all laugh. The organ set-up is like The Low Anthem: an antique soul spiked with rock 'n' roll.
Ben walks over to Jeff‚ playing a long note on the E-flat horn. He slowly bends over‚ playing into the organ. Jocie steps close and does the same. The sound of the horn and clarinet flow into the organ and through the amp‚ blending and crackling with distortion. Jeff keeps one hand on the keyboard and raises his other to the bell of Ben's horn‚ muting it a bit‚ testing how much sound to let through. All three are focused‚ lost for a moment as they harmonize. It's clear that this is how they work -- manipulating sound‚ exploring every possible avenue‚ every idea‚ feeling out the results. For them‚ playing a horn and a clarinet into the top of a pump organ and sending it all through a small‚ cheap amplifier makes perfect sense.
"Going between the mindset of an engineer and a musician is difficult‚" Jeff says‚ when I ask about the recording of Darwin. "Jesse was another set of ears for when we were at a crossroads and it was, Should we go left or right?" "We would hit walls all the time‚ where a song just wouldn't be working‚" adds Ben. "We would do ten takes and nothing would be working and we'd be losing our wits. [It was important] to have someone there who was a little less emotionally invested who you could ask 'Do you have a new direction for us? What do you think?'"
Over the next two hours‚ the band works with Brett to record five songs: "This God Damn House‚" "Home I'll Never Be‚" "Charlie Darwin‚" Broken Bones‚" and "Ticket Taker." Three of them are from Darwin‚ and the spirit of using every instrument and idea at their disposal to make music continues. Toward the end of "This God Damn House‚" with trumpet‚ clarinet‚ and pump organ harmonizing around him‚ Ben uses his cell phone to call Jeff's; he holds them both up to his vocal mic and whistles into each. The effect causes a haunting‚ digitized loop that blends eerily well with the acoustic instruments. As the organ‚ trumpet and clarinet fade softly at the end of the song‚ the whispering loop dissipates in a delicate crackle of digital noise. Everyone sits silent for a moment‚ letting the silence settle‚ but the band isn't romantic about it. They switch instruments -- now drums‚ electric guitar‚ electric bass‚ and more organ -- and rip into a junkyard rocker‚ making "Home I'll Never Be" even more insistent and raw than it is on Darwin. Jeff‚ who was swaying and staring quietly into middle distance during "This God Damn House‚" is bent over at the waist‚ bobbing up and down in time‚ stomping on the floor so hard that the coffee cans of markers and paintbrushes on the table next to me shake in time to the beat.

"Wait‚ which way do we go? Oh‚ oh shit. . . ."
Ben is driving an overloaded Subaru wagon through the oval-shaped roundabout in downtown Winooski‚ Vermont. I'm cramped in the back seat‚ stuffed in with all the gear. In the fading twilight‚ even with my direction‚ Ben is about to drive us into a median. We're trying to get to The Monkey House‚ where the band is playing tonight‚ but Ben also wants to know more about where we can get dinner‚ and for a moment his mind short-circuits. At the last second‚ he swerves left.
I can imagine this scene playing out from town to town as the band travels on its longest tour to date: 30 gigs in support of Oh My God‚ Charlie Darwin. While they're excited‚ they also know that the road can be tough for a band that often plays quiet acoustic music. "Outside of our comfort zone‚ our sphere of where we've toured‚ it just gets really scary everywhere you go‚" Ben says. "You really have no idea what to expect." The previous night's show was‚ in his words‚ "rough." According to the band‚ the sound was terrible‚ and most of the crowd left after the opener. "We went out there on a whim and had an off night‚" Ben says. "It was a horrible show. It was uncomfortable for everyone."
After the band sets up and does a sound check‚ we all sit at a table and talk over Thai take-out. Cyrus's brother lives in town and spins emphatic tales about hosting death metal shows in his basement. As the brothers catch up‚ Jeff‚ Ben‚ Jocie and I retreat to the bar's cramped basement office to get a quick twenty-minute interview on tape. Soon enough‚ Paddy Reagan‚ the bar's talent booker and soundman‚ is telling the band they have ten minutes until show time.