CD: Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads | New music reviews, news & interviews
CD: Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads
The mother of all folk sources revisited
Anaïs Mitchell is one of America’s leading new folk singers, a protégée of Ani di Franco. She is a poet steeped in the archetypes of Greek mythology, old stories that she has evoked in a contemporary setting, not least in her re-telling of the Orpheus myth, Hadestown.
It is hardly surprising then that her latest album, made with Jefferson Hamer, should tap into the mother of all British American sources, the Child Ballads, a compendium of Scottish and English ballads, brought together in the 19th century by Francis James Child. These tales of love, death and sorcery are cousins of the Greek narratives, exploring as they do the depth of human experience, both light and dark. Songs such as “Sir Patrick Spens”, “Geordie” and “Clyde Waters”, included on this album, have provided over the years a great source of inspiration for musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy and Fairport Convention.
For this concise collection, Mitchell and Hamer sing mostly in harmony, in a tone reminiscent of the Louvin Brothers’ airy spirituality and the melancholy nostalgia of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Harmony singing is more than the sum of its parts, and when two voices blend as these do, the emotional power they communicate results from a combination of contrast and kinship. For these crystalline interpretations of the canon, Mitchell has toned down the occasionally mannered sweetness of her voice and Hamer softened his delivery. Although they don’t seek to disguise their American accents, they both sound less "country" than in their solo recordings. On “Willie’s Lady”, one of the album’s high points, the combined voices, tinged with an unearthly mix of tragedy and innocence, have a magical quality that enthralls.
The recording and production of the album – by Gary Paczosa, who has worked with Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton - is appropriately discrete, yet intimate. Violin and accordion are used sparingly and always to good effect. There is nothing groundbreaking about Child Ballads: that is hardly the purpose of a project that seeks to re-interpret folk masterpieces, not in the spirit of literal authenticity - for Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer take liberties with the lyrics, as all their predecessors have done - but with a freshness that comes from bringing love and awe to works of abiding genius that merit perennial re-invention.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
Electro-pop fare to eek out the summer dead zone
Mainline jazz, roots, and global sounds abound in the planet's biggest jazzfest
Brilliant re-working of epochal 1950s album
A tiny glimpse of history kicks off a huge party
The Danish bassist on the perils of consumerism, playing without the dots, and why 4/4 isn't a crime
The Earlies' John Mark Lapham produces a stunning album 10 years in the making
Rising Sweden-based indie sorts take their buzzy debut album on the road
Everything from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to cutting edge techno reviewed on plastic
Grungy punk pop’s Dukes of Hazzard bring some funk to the party
An eye-opening look at the Cape Verde’s fusion of West African and Brazilian musical styles
A sense of communion at the North Atlantic festival where rain never stops play
Young band's posthumous release is a fitting epitaph