AFTER TWO barely noticed albums in the mid-noughties, Rhode Island folk-rock/indie-folk trio The Low Anthem struck creative gold with 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.To hold their own and not be outdone by the considerable shadow cast by Fleet Foxes’ magical debut was some achievement, as was the band’s ability to balance the rabble rousing, beer’n’brawling side of folk, with the genre’s sensitive, introspective, side, showing in the process, an emphatic understanding and love for the heritage of this Hiberno-British-American strain of music.
However 2011’s Smart Flesh was dour and downbeat, sapping the trio of the momentum its predecessor had built. Wisely they took some time out. Recently Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky have returned to active duty as The Low Anthem, but third member Jocie Adams has struck out on her own as Arc Iris.
The liberation of going solo can be felt and heard on Adam's eponymous debut album as Arc Iris (released through Bella Union), where Adams creates songs that, on the one hand could lead her to a bigger stage than ever she might have played on with The Low Anthem, while others are more daring and imaginative than anything attempted by her previous band.
Songs like ‘Money Gnomes’ and ‘Whiskey Man’ could just be another folk/country/Americana number, but the very familiarity and ease with which Adams performs them shows her mastery of the form. Her vocal performances are wondreful and well judged, and there are inspired touches which lift both songs out of the ordinary - the heavy double bass and subtle percussive elements provide a powerful undertow and propulsion to ‘Whiskey Man’, while the contrast between the fast pace of ‘Money Gnomes’ verses and its haunting, waltz based chorus, makes for something arresting and memorable.
‘Powder Train’ (a personal reworking of Dave Van Ronk’s hoary old chestnut ‘Cocaine’), starts as a solid, if utterly conventional, country song, but when least expected, breaks into a coda of full on soul/r’n’b. An inspired move, it also highlights the oft neglected link between musics usually seen as ‘racially’ exclusive.
On the more experimental end is the two part ‘Honour Of Rainbows’, which begins with mournful, atonal cello, over which voices sing soundless words. The second part is a thoroughly left field ballad, which even features Adams duetting with herself, via an array of distorted voices, a la David Bowie’s ‘The Bewley Brothers’.
The creative high point though, is ‘Lost On Me’. A song of dramatic twists and turns, changes of pace and rhythm, epicene, and moments of intense, often haunting beauty, it is not in any sense conventional, yet its defiantly left-field nature is achieved without sacrificing melodiousness and lyricism.
Where the link comes between convention and experiment is in the epic ‘Canadian Cowboy’, which comes across as both country ballad and late night torch song, interspersed by lyrical piano and clarinet motifs. An ambitious song, both in terms of arrangement and performance, it is also not impossible to imagine it appearing on the radio.