SHACK UP: Miller, Prystowsky, and Adams threw together a patchwork studio and spent a week hunkered down in a Block Island cabin to record Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
While we all snoozed on eggnog during the 2007 holidays, Jeff Prystowsky and the rest of the Low Anthem were shacked up in a rickety old house on Block Island, a deserted little hamlet full of empty summer cottages off the coast of Rhode Island. And whereas the time most of us spent beating the pants off eight-year-old cousins at Guitar Hero was a fleeting triumph, Prystowsky's break is still paying off.
The Providence-based trio — Prystowsky, Jocie Adams, and singer Ben Miller (all three share multiple instrumental duties) — amassed an arsenal of expensive microphones from friends in recording school, threw together a patchwork studio, and spent a week hunkered down with a pile of instruments. They emerged with Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, their excellent second full-length record, which they would later release themselves in hand-printed sleeves and which they've been hawking during a non-stop touring schedule over the past six months.
It's about to head into a new phase following this week's national re-release on the venerable Nonesuch Records, the Warner Bros. underling that's been home to Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman, Steve Reich, and Wilco. The Boston CD-release show at the Brattle next Thursday is but one stop on the next leg of the tour, which is taking the band from Bonnaroo this weekend to the Bowery Ballroom in New York, the Glastonbury Festival, Newport Folk, and Lollapalooza. When I catch Prystowsky — who switches among drums, bass, organ and guitar — on his cellphone, he's savoring some brief downtime while reflecting on the trip so far and recalling the material's long haul out of that cabin. "Something really special happened in that house. There were some songs we tried to redo later on in studios in Harlem or New Haven and we just couldn't get back to it."
The record does bear the qualities of a field recording or a snapshot. Moving gently among sepia-toned arrangements of pump organs and clarinets and gruff barnyard blues, it could be a look-for-look response to Tom Waits's Mule Variations. You'll find the same blunt guitar strings, the same dull organ reeds, the same lonesome harmonicas. Characters shuffle off into oblivion, clinging to soil and history books while the world moves on in a stylistic push-and-pull. "Tonight's the night that the waters rise, you're groping in the dark/Ticket takers count the men that can afford the ark," whispers Miller in the mystical survivalist romance "Ticket Taker." Elsewhere, he barks a cover of Waits's stomper "Home I'll Never Be" (itself a take on an obscure home recording by Jack Kerouac) in an even more out-of-order, way-behind-the-beat performance than Waits throws at his most delirious live outings.
"It was never like, 'Hey, I've got a great idea for a band!' or anything," says Prystowsky about the young group's deep-Americana pursuit. "We kept digging and people passed music along in our community until we found this honesty in those old folk and blues recordings that struck us as being really beautiful. It ended up being natural to us."