Saturday, March 20, 2010

Low Anthem / Annie & the Beekeepers

By Peter Blackstock

If by chance you're deep in the midst of SXSW right now, you've probably had several opportunities to catch a couple of acts I saw last weekend at the Cat's Cradle here in North Carolina: the Low Anthem, and Annie & the Beekeepers. Though they're really quite different bands, they have a couple of notable connections: Low Anthem multi-instrumentalist Mat Davidson formerly was one of the Beekeepers, and the two acts share the same management.

Because I happened to come across both of them around the same time last year, and saw them both last summer on separate bills within a week's time at small clubs, they have become sort of intertwined in my mind, despite the fact that they really don't sound anything like each other. The common ground from a musical standpoint is simply that both bands are really, really good.

They're also at fairly different stages in their careers. The Low Anthem, though I enjoy the opportunity to write about them and perhaps help spread the word, hardly needs my little semblance of assistance at this point, I expect. True that they're not "huge" by any measure just yet; but it seems plenty clear to me that they're over the hump, with an album (Oh My God, Charlie Darwin) on an excellent major-affiliated label (Nonesuch), and a steadily increasing live draw that saw them graduate from around 100 folks at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill last August to around 300 at Cat's Cradle down the street last week.

For fans, right now is the absolute perfect time to catch this band. The crowds are large enough to feel like you're sharing the experience, yet not so crowded that everyone's packed in like sardines. I think the latter is coming, because the other thing about seeing them right now is that it feels like they are at full bloom artistically. I recall the band I saw last August being something special; last week, what I heard was beyond special, to the point that I believe I can call them one of the very best young bands I've heard in the last ten years or so. In that regard, they'd be in the company of the Avett Brothers (with whom they recently toured, and apparently really hit it off) and Hem (who they definitely should tour with, from a musical-compatibility standpoint at least).

So what exactly IS it, then, about the Low Anthem that leaves me so impressed? A few things. First, the instrumentation. These guys (well, actually, three guys and a girl) routinely switch around among a variety of instruments both typical (guitars, drums, bass, keyboards) and atypical (esoteric horns, musical saw, harmonium, some thing with bells on it played with a bow that I don't even know the name of). The result is a sound that is, to properly employ an overused word, unique. I've never heard another band that sounds like the Low Anthem. (Thus my apologies for the lack of the standard "recommended if you like" comparisons here.)

Next, the dynamics. Folks used to talk about how the Pixies were masters of the quiet-to-loud transition, and they were; I've noticed a similar sort of facility with that balance among the projects of Glen Hansard (notably the Frames and the Swell Season). And yet I'm not sure I've ever seen a band so effortlessly follow a number that's as hushed as something from the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session with a full-on blues-belting scorcher that blows out the engines. The Low Anthem's genius is finding a way to make these deliveries of a piece with each other; and somehow, they completely fit within the group's overarching aesthetic. I have no idea quite how they manage this, but I've heard it a couple times now onstage, and there is no abruptness to their dynamic shifts. It just works.

Finally, they're very good songwriters, ones who optimize the balance between creating new sounds and borrowing from the past. That their first album (2007's What The Crow Brings) included a cover of the Carter Family's "Keep On The Sunny Side" was a nice touch, but the Low Anthem would not work simply as a revival band (even acknowledging what a fresh-sounding take on that old tune they recorded). Like the very best bands we covered in No Depression over the years, they're employing traditional songs and styles to inform their own very original art.

If there's a specific area where the Low Anthem and Annie & the Beekeepers overlap, it's this last observation, because they're clearly drawing on traditional music as well, yet are also very good songwriters creating new material that is ultimately all their own. The traditionalism is perhaps a little more evident with the Beekeepers, in that the instrumentation is more akin to contemporary string-band lineups, though the inclusion of cello is a somewhat unusual (and welcome) element alongside the more traditional upright bass and acoustic guitar (with occasional curveballs such as banjo and harmonica on a song or two here and there).

Probably the biggest calling-card for Annie & the Beekeepers is the quality of their voices, specifically the exquisite purity of the harmonies that are struck between frontwoman Annie Lynch and multi-instrumentalist Alexandra Spalding. It's not just the raw beauty of their voices, but also the emotional pull they exert through the expressiveness of their singing. In short, they make you feel the songs, not just hear them.

I probably can give you some "recommended if you like" comparisons here -- Crooked Still, Gillian Welch, maybe Alison Krauss -- but I wouldn't wanna take that too far because the Beekeepers stake out their own territory with their songwriting. Still, it's the vocals that will almost certainly draw you in first, and so if you're the kind that appreciates the likes of those artists, you will definitely want to seek out Annie & the Beekeepers too.

With a self-released LP and EP to their name, Annie & the Beekeepers are still finding their way, though the simple fact that they've been in my neck of the woods twice in the past eight months suggests they're working hard to get there (as does the fact that the current SXSW is their second straight appearance at that event). They strike me as the kind of band, unlike the Low Anthem, that could benefit from whatever boost I might still be able to provide, limited though it may be at this point. So, to put it simply, if I've ever steered you right before over the years -- if I've made you aware of a talented young band that you might not previously have heard -- then check these guys out. Their music has moved me, and it's of such unmistakable quality that I have no doubt there are a lot more folks who would be similarly moved, if they get a chance to hear it.

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