While scoping out locations for their third album, the Low Anthem stumbled across a vacant pasta sauce factory in Central Falls, RI. For a band whose instruments include WWII-era pump organs and other antique items, the factory -- with its label-strewn floors, big empty spaces, and semi-crumbling appearance -- must’ve felt like home. And it was home, at least for the three winter months in which the Low Anthem took up temporary residence inside the place, recording the bulk of their third album with Charlie Darwin producer Jesse Lauter. Smart Flesh, the result of the so-called “Pasta Sauce Factory Sessions” and an additional session in Providence, makes good use of the building, which often functions as a fifth member of the band. The songs are deliberately loose and minimalist -- intricacy tends to get lost in the booming, resonant halls of a factory -- but the substance that remains is strong, potent stuff. High-lonesome folk, bare-boned Americana, and old-timey harmony numbers are the name of the game, and although the band’s use of vintage instruments makes for some fun Wikipedia sleuthing (what are “crotales,” anyway?), the spotlight remains on the songs themselves. Frontman Ben Knox Miller sings with a troubadour’s voice, a combination of Bob Dylan and early James Taylor that lends a pleasantness to anything he sings, even when the lyrics revolve around death. He feels like the obvious leader here -- although everyone sings, he’s the only member to own the frontman role -- but Smart Flesh’s best songs are those that revolve around the band’s four-part harmonies, including the gorgeous “Love and Altar” (a close cousin to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’s title track) and a cover of George Carter’s “Ghost Woman Blues.” The Low Anthem may be Ivy League grads, but Smart Flesh doesn’t feel like the work of overeducated Generation Y kids thumbing through their parents’ folk LPs -- it feels like the real thing.
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AllMusic Review by Andrew Leahey