A little context is pretty much required to be able to truly appreciate Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. The album was initially self-released in September of 2008, packaged in homemade materials and artwork. It was the second major album attempt from the Brown-educated trio, all three of which were experienced musicians involved in acts as diverse as electronica, pop, and classical. By the time The Low Anthem played South by Southwest in March of ’09, their album was already making noise with Rolling Stone and NPR, catapulting their eventual Nonesuch release into some well-deserved viral hype.
The sound, however, of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is anything but homemade. The Low Anthem play, and record with well over a dozen instruments, and it shows. The production quality is top notch; the minimalism of many of the more quiet songs on the record are bolstered with warm accompanyments, the likes of which feel taylor-made for each track. But perhaps the greatest flaw of Oh My God… is also it’s biggest strength. It’s the variety of the music within, and the ability to take the listener from pin-drop, ethereal folk to the polar extremes of stomp-rock and blues in the span of a single cut that make it both an endearing and frustrating experience.
Kicking off the album, “Charlie Darwin” and “To Ohio” lay groundwork for some of the best indie folk you’ll hear all year. “Charlie Darwin” pits an acoustic guitar with a polite falsetto, eventually warming up to layered harmonies and a subtle harmonica. “To Ohio” hearkens a Nick Drake-esque peacefulness with surprisingly apt clarinets. The third track, “Ticket Taker”, somehow manages to be even softer and by the time it finishes, you’re almost ready for something punchier. Without any warning, “The Horizon is a Beltway” blasts you with a Tom Waits’ growl and 180-degree shift in sound. If that isn’t enough to phase you, then the rest of the album’s erratic genre twists and turns won’t be a problem.
Some of the most rewarding albums of 2008 were almost all from debut or relatively new bands to the music scene. While 2009 has had a bit more variety, it hasn’t shied away from the excellent new bands that have sprung up suddenly to make immediate impacts in the music community. The Low Anthem are another clearly talented band perched to make big strides; and while some of Oh My God… is fantastic, it’s the lesser-quality songs and breakneck shifts from the overly quiet to excessively noisy that keep it from being a masterpiece. It’s not that The Low Anthem can’t be a phenomenal group, it’s just first they need to decide who they’re going to be.