Nonesuch/Bella Union, 2011

What should the listener expect from a much-hyped indie band’s first truly major label debut after a largely successful self-released and promoted first proper album? The relativism that hinges in that question would seem to hold the fate of The Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh in its palms, as most ordinary fans of the band probably boast towering expectations from another studio go-round from these Rhode Island folksters. It is here in that hypothetical bubble where we decide whether a second helping of nu-Americana and rural roots rock is good enough, or we hold the band’s feet to the fires and expect something new, magnificent and overwhelming. In that sense, Smart Flesh should be both a happy surprise and an unfortunate disappointment.

What it doesn’t do is copy Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’s blueprints for a low-fi folk record with occasional rock bursts; Smart Flesh seems, from the beginning, to be even more laid back, with more blues-tinged country than straight folk. “Ghost Woman Blues” is stark by comparison to “Charlie Darwin”, absent of the warm harmonies and welcoming guitar strums and “Apothocary Love” is a quintessential campfire country music song right down to the slide guitars, chord progressions and alcohol-soaked abandonment themes. The problem with all this is, despite The Low Anthem’s ability to shift the shape of their musical tones, nothing jumps out of the speakers like Charlie Darwin. The instant catch of “To Ohio” or the bombastic wail of “The Horizon Is A Beltway” has been swapped with the quiet and the lonely (“Love and Altar”), minimal instrumentals, (“Wire”), and just downright boring attempts at ballads (“Burn”).

This is not to say the record doesn’t have any high points, there is the post-9/11 raucousness of “Boeing 737” or the genuinely sweet tones in the album’s first two cuts. “Hey, All You Hippies!” relieves quite a bit of the monotony later on, as well, with a burst of organ and electric guitar and seems destined to be a live show sing-along favorite for the future. To the band’s credit, their ability to switch things up has remained in tact, it just comes too few and far between to dissuade a lot of the record’s doldrums.

It seems more often than not, that what real music fans are looking for is a sense of movement, even if it comes at the expense of a stunning record. A band with music blog fever can afford a disposable record so long as it’s not a carbon copy of older stuff. In The Low Anthem’s case, mission accomplished. The production quality and instrumentalization has clearly improved, as well as the band’s coherency and ability to put forward a less ADHD set of songs that follow a universal theme and tone. Even if it is, as is the case with Smart Flesh, mostly forgettable.