Considering that they turned their previous album, 2009's Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, into a word-of-mouth buzz record without the benefit of a distributor or even a PR manager, the Low Anthem is an act that really knows how to make a DIY approach to the music business work. The band, now recording as a quartet thanks to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Mat Davidson, brings that thrift-store scavenger POV to their latest effort, Smart Flesh, filling the album with flourishes of unusual instruments and natural environment sounds from the abandoned pasta sauce factory where they recorded the bulk of the tracks.
Although those choices make for a creative sonic palette for a contemporary folk record, Smart Flesh too often succumbs to a plodding tempo and cavernous, echoing reverb that robs the album of warmth. Opener "Ghost Woman Blues" lays bare the strengths and problems of the album in short order: With its beautifully arranged vocal harmonies, a simple piano melody, and a surprising, haunted fill from Jocie Adams's clarinet, the song showcases the Low Anthem's gifts for sophisticated, intricate compositions, but it also drags on interminably and lacks urgency. From a purely classicist, technical standpoint, songs like the lilting "Burn" and the spare, minimalist "I'll Take Out Your Ashes" are impressive, and they're far more ambitious than what many of the band's contemporaries like Conor Oberst and Mumford & Sons ever attempt. But these songs play out like dirges. As the tempos slow to a crawl and the reverb from the band's makeshift recording studio builds and builds, Smart Flesh quickly becomes dull.
A song like the midtempo "Apothecary Love," which is structured like a traditional country ballad, might not be a standout on an M. Ward or My Morning Jacket album, but it functions as a change-up on this record, as does the rollicking, heavy "Boeing 737." And "Hey, All You Hippies!" isn't a great song on its own merits, but its brattiness and relative pace make it a welcome reprieve after the tedium of "Love and Altar" and "Wire."
Americana and modern folk are often dismissed for their dour self-seriousness, and Smart Flesh, unfortunately, falls into the worst of those trappings. Highbrow compositions and arrangements are all well and good, but only if the production values and performances make those compositions listenable, and that's where the Low Anthem loses the plot here. They're a talented band, sure, but their record is an outright bore.