New-roots Americana: The Low Anthem + Fleet Foxes + Bon Iver + Iron And Wine

screen-shot-2011-04-20-at-12-00-15-pmOver the past ten years or so, music mak­ers in the US have been drawn increas­ing­ly to their roots for inspi­ra­tion and guid­ance. Alt coun­try acts like Bon­nie ‘Prince’ Bil­ly (aka Will Old­ham), Smog (Bill Callaghan), and the ill-fat­ed Sparkle­horse (Mark Link­ous), Gillian Welch, Lucin­da Williams, Ali­son Krauss and the re-emer­gence of Emmy­lou Har­ris, have all been hov­er­ing around the fringes for some time now.

And you could see it in the paired down pro­duc­tion of Rick Rubin and T Bone Bur­nett, the for­mer in the icon­ic Amer­i­can Record­ings he made with John­ny Cash, the lat­ter in the sur­prise pack­age that was O Broth­er, Where Art Thou and all that that ush­ered in. But this New-roots Amer­i­cana real­ly only became a bona fide move­ment when four near­ly new acts burst on to the scene and dragged it from the periph­ery into the mainstream.

Bon Iver’s For Emma, For­ev­er Ago, the epony­mous Fleet Fox­es, Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Song and The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Char­lie Dar­win all appeared in or around 2008. and were each met with wide­spread crit­i­cal acclaim and (rel­a­tive) com­mer­cial suc­cess. And although the lat­ter two were actu­al­ly third albums, they very much felt like a cou­ple of debuts, not least because of how com­fort­ably they sat with the for­mer pair.

the-low-anthem-smart-flesh-592Although they each cast their own very dis­tinct shad­ow, they were all clear­ly sculpt­ed from the same stone. Pris­tine melodies and the kinds of lush, Appalachi­an har­monies that are impos­si­ble to describe with­out ref­er­enc­ing Bri­an Wil­son, were draped in self-con­scious­ly Spar­tan arrange­ments, using instru­ments that proud­ly bypassed a gen­er­a­tion and looked back instead to Lead Bel­ly and Woody Guthrie. The results were rav­ish­ing and man­aged to be both invit­ing­ly inti­mate and dis­arm­ing­ly hon­est, and the com­plete absence of cyn­i­cism or irony was a rare and wel­come treat.

This year, all four pro­duced that dif­fi­cult, sec­ond album. And, broad­ly speak­ing, they each man­aged to deliv­er, if in their own, dif­fer­ent ways. Three of the acts made a con­scious effort to devel­op what they’d begun. The Low Anthem in con­trast took where they’d gone with Char­lie Dar­win and refined and reduced it still fur­ther, pair­ing it down to its bare essen­tials. The result, Smart Flesh, some­how tran­scends its uncom­pro­mis­ing aus­ter­i­ty to wrap itself around you in the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of impos­si­bly refined cash­mere. Though they do need to light­en up a bit. Some­body should send them on a road trip to Vegas with a cred­it card and Char­lie Sheen’s address book.

Each of the oth­er three moved to devel­op their musi­cal palette and expand it in var­i­ous ways. The least ambi­tious is Fleet Fox­es’ Help­less­ness Blues, which doesn’t real­ly do very much more than con­tin­ue on from where their debut left off. The some­what clum­sy for­ay into free jazz in “The Shrine/An argu­ment” accen­tu­ates rather than dis­guis­es that lack of devel­op­ment. But it’s hard­ly their fault if they arrived with their debut ful­ly formed and already com­plete. And there’s noth­ing here to damp­en the mer­it­ed enthu­si­asm gen­er­at­ed by its pre­de­ces­sor, Fleet Fox­es.

In con­trast, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s epony­mous fol­low-up to For Emma, For­ev­er Ago, is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly more mus­cu­lar affair. And the fact that it is only now with his sec­ond album that Ver­non feels suf­fi­cient­ly com­fort­able to offer up the manda­to­ry self-titled album, is a clear sign of his new-found con­fi­dence. He’s as bold and adven­tur­ous pro­cess­ing his vocals through Auto Tunes as Kanye West was on 808, and was an inspired choice by the lat­ter to col­lab­o­rate with him on his sub­se­quent Dark Twist­ed Fan­ta­sy (see below).

Iron and Wine Kiss Each Other Clean 2011 FrontWhilst the ease with which he embraces synth-heavy 80s MOR filler and uses it as the son­ic wall paper on which to hang some of his exquis­ite­ly craft­ed melodies is evi­dence of a musi­cian con­fi­dent of the direc­tion he wish­es to go in. The result­ing album takes us on a melo­di­ous if intro­spec­tive jour­ney from fal­ter­ing child­hood to appar­ent matu­ri­ty and back again, and deserves all of the plau­dits it’s being fes­tooned with (the boys from Prav­da gave it a 9.5

But the most enjoy­able of the eight albums is Iron & Wine’s (aka Sam Beam’s) Kiss Each Oth­er Clean, which came out on 4AD. He’s tak­en his par­tic­u­lar brand of New-roots Amer­i­cana down the same route that Gram Par­sons and The Byrds trav­elled, by fus­ing Nashville and the moun­tains, coun­try and roots, to alchem­i­cal­ly pro­duce pitch per­fect pop. It’s a road that would even­tu­al­ly lead to Fleet­wood Mac and The Eagles in their prime, and the com­bi­na­tion of bit­ter-sweet world-weari­ness cloaked in mel­liflu­ous melodies is as intox­i­cat­ing now as it was then.

It’s not an entire­ly unex­pect­ed move. It was hint­ed at in the impos­si­bly plan­gent “Flight­less Bird, Amer­i­can Mouth” from The Shepherd’s Dog, a track that the under­rat­ed Kris­ten Stew­art insist­ed be includ­ed on the Twi­light sound­track. The expan­sive musi­cal­i­ty that that track mapped has here been extend­ed across an entire album, and the result­ing sounds are irresistible.

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