Anaïs Mitchell‘s Child Ballads will be released on March 19th. The album finds my favorite female singer-songwriter collaborating with Jefferson Hamer on covers of traditional English and Scottish folk ballads famously collected by Francis James Child. As Anaïs herself says, “most of the heroines are pregnant and most of the heroes are named ‘Willie.’“
I could easily wax poetic about the lofty concept of the album (as many already), but I must admit disappointment with this collection. The fault lies entirely on the monotonous nature of the songs rather than Anaïs herself. Anaïs’ voice, arrangements and instrumentation are impeccable throughout, but the strength of her music has always lain as much in her brilliant songwriting as it has in her performance. So this material just isn’t quite up to par with her own compositions.
There are exceptions, though. Most notable are the opening track “Willie of Winsbury” and especially the epic fable “Tam Lin.” The latter has also been covered by The Decemberists and was the inspiration for their Hazards of Love concept album.
Child Ballads is worth a listen for Anaïs’ unusual voice and her cover of “Tam Lin” alone — even more so if you’re a fan of the other folk songs included on the album.
Child Ballads Tracklist
Willie of Winsbury (Child 100)
Willie’s Lady (Child 6)
Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58)
Riddles Wisely Expounded (Child 1)
Clyde Waters (Child 216)
Geordie (Child 209)
Tam Lin (Child 39)
Muruch favorite Anaïs Mitchell was featured in a recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert. The stripped down performance makes her poetry even more poignant. Featured in this performance are the songs “Shepherd,” “Tailor” and the title track from her album, Young Man in America (Muruch’s #1 of 2012). You can see the video and download an mp3 of the performance below.
2012 was a very good year for music. Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with enough albums for my year end list, this year the problem was narrowing down my choices. Click on the album titles to read the full reviews, purchase the albums, and, in some cases, watch videos and/or download mp3s. Then comment with your favorite albums of the year.
“…Dala’s penchant for peppy country-pop harmonies and melodic folk-pop melodies fall somewhere between Lady Antebellum and Sylvie Lewis…sweet vocals, tinkling piano and buoyant strings…a pop culture cornucopia with references to everything from Shakespeare to Annie Hall“
“…I expect Eric McGrath won’t be Ireland’s best kept secret for long…McGrath’s intimate singing style and breezy, multi-instrumental compositions often fall somewhere between Bright Eyes and Xavier Rudd, which is an extremely interesting and unique place to be. But even such grand comparisons are tenuous, because Eric McGrath is definitely blazing a creative trail of his own.“
“…Xavier is one of my all-time favorite artists and his music never fails to amaze, uplift and thoroughly entertain me…Xavier wrote, sang and played every instrument (of which there are many) on this spectacular new collection.“
“…Not only does The 2nd Law continue that grandiose marriage of arena rock and classical music, but its futuristic electronic twist allows the album to stand completely on its alone. Definitely one for the year end list…weaving thunderous rock, classical song structure and instrumentation with operatic backing vocals into a glorious, cross-genre cacophony.“
“…the teenage opera duo were this year’s Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent…Talent like Jonathan & Charlotte’s and an album like this doesn’t come along often, so I hope they have a long, successful career ahead of them.“
“…a very splendid and beautiful collection…elegantly serene…Andsnes and the other musicians do a superb job in their individual performances of each work. Even more noteworthy is their musical coalescescence.“
“…shockingly upbeat sound…Cat Power is still as sultry and mysterious as she always was, but the music is very much uptempo…There’s just something so unique about Cat Power’s voice, lyrics and song structure. That unusual quality makes what could be, should be pop songs something entirely different. It’s unpop.“
“…The album explores pop, New Wave and synth rock in a way that is quite a departure from Palmer’s old punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, but it often has the same twisted wit, high energy and frenetic pace…the bombastic Theatre Is Evil is the best argument for fan-funded albums“
“…Have I mentioned I love The Mynabirds? The thumping, catchy, claphappy, fiercely femme indie sound of their new sophomore album, Generals, is somewhere between Lykke Li and Bats for Lashes. Thus the love…the album is deliciously rife with the band’s signature blend of synth-pop, rock, wails, hand claps and stomps.“
“…a tribute to The Mamas & Papas and The Beach Boys…their harmonies are as lovely as ever and very reminiscent of the two bands who spawned them…a sunny, summery, very catchy and surprisingly well orchestrated collection of classic pop covers.“
“…Khatia Buniatishvili’s Chopin is not only my favorite of the Chopin albums released this year, it’s my favorite classical release of 2012…Her nimble fingers are a perfect fit for the classical piano master’s compositions and her selection from his work is superbly diverse. Buniatishvili’s Chopin is an absolutely exquisite collection.“
“…Where did this guy come from?…McPherson’s music is a delicious mix of brassed up retro soul and rumbling vintage blues-rock. It’s been a very long time since I was struck by such an intense sense of awe while listening to an album…sound like classics by Little Richard, Jackie Wilson or The Big Bopper with a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Sun Studios-era Elvis thrown in.“
“…who is this band and how can anyone make an entire album of music this good? Song after song, I would think I’d heard the best of the album only to be even more amazed by the next track. This is music for any band to aspire to and for any music fan to get very excited about.“
“…Norah has finally found a dark, dreamy sound interesting enough to successfully break away from those old coffeehouse categories without losing the mellow charm that made her famous. Produced by Danger Mouse, …Little Broken Hearts spices up pretty post-breakup pop anthems with luscious splashes of noirish electro-rock.“
“…Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, weaves the fierce emotion, poetic lyrics and masterfully constructed compositions of her previous releases with a much more rugged recording style and strong splashes of jazz. The collection is somewhat unexpected and strange, but it’s also exquisitely beautiful and brilliant.“
“…Anaïs Mitchell is like a modern day Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Her epic lyrical narratives echo Guthrie’s masterful talent for blending the literary with the ordinary, while her fierce and unique vocal phrasing as well as her intricately multi-layered arrangements take Dylanesque to a whole new realm….Young Man in America is both an ambitious recording project and a beautifully rich tapestry of classic folk songwriting. Anaïs Mitchell just may be my generation’s most talented singer-songwriter.“
The radiant Anaïs Mitchell stole the show for me. This was the third Mountain Stage appearance by Anaïs that I’ve attended, so she’s tied with Amy Correia as the artist I’ve seen perform the most times at the venue. She never fails to deliver a captivating live performance, and her set at Mountain Stage last night was no exception. Sadly, I didn’t realize until the concert started that my camera’s batteries were dead. I don’t think you could capture that magic on film anyway.
As I said in my review of her superb new album, Young Man in America (click album title for my review), : “Anaïs Mitchell is like a modern day Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Her epic lyrical narratives echo Guthrie’s masterful talent for blending the literary with the ordinary, while her fierce and unique vocal phrasing as well as her intricately multi-layered arrangements take Dylanesque to a whole new realm.“
Anaïs’ dual role as singer and poet were on beautiful display on stage last night. She always had a charming stage presence, but her on-stage confidence seems to have blossomed over the years. Her “Young Man Band” – comprised of singer Rachel Ries (Anaïs’ Country EP partner), bassist Noah Hahn and multi-instrumentalist Ben Davis – provided worthy accompaniment. Davis’ banjo playing during “Dying Day,” which opened the set, was especially noteworthy.
“Dying Day” was the perfect way to introduce the audience to Anaïs and her new album. It was remarkable how her performance evoked a strong, positive reaction from everyone in the crowd, regardless of age – both the middle-aged man beside me and the little girl sitting in front of me nodded their heads along to the song.
Anaïs and her crew combined brief “Wilderland” and the title track from Young Man in America into one seamless, stellar medley. All of the songs sounded even better live than on the studio recording, but “Young Man in America ” was especially moving.
Anaïs’ plaintive call of “my daddy was a repo man, put me out onto the street, didn’t give a damn for me, did not give a damn!” brought tears to my eyes, and the haunting transition from the song’s final lyric “let me climb back in the bed you made me in” to the gorgeous instrument flourish that closes the song was absolutely hypnotic.
Anaïs’ set wasn’t heavy on banter, but she did talk a bit about her father when introducing the song “Shepherd,” which was inspired by his out-of-print novel The Souls of Lambs. It is her father’s face that adorns the cover of Young Man in America and Anaïs joked about his not wanting to cut his hair so people would recognize him from the picture.
During Anaïs’ emotive rendering of “Shepherd,” I noticed bassist Noah Hahn kneeling down on one knee with his eyes closed and his face turned up toward Anaïs. It seems her heartfelt vocals and musical narratives were as rapturous to the members of her band as to those of us in the audience.
“Tailor,” while not a favorite track of mine on the album, was incredibly powerful live – especially Anaïs’ breathy sighs of “Who Am I?” in the last verse. She then ended her spectacular set with “You Are Forgiven.”
After three brilliant albums and three magnificent live performances, Anaïs Mitchell has cemented herself as my favorite contemporary artist.
Anaïs Mitchell will perform a rare full concert in West Virginia at Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall on April 14th. I hope to attend and review that show as well, so stay tuned.
To say Anaïs Mitchell’s fourth album, Young Man in America, was my most anticipated release of the new year would be a chasmic understatement. Listening to this worthy followup to 2010′s spectacular “folk opera” Hadestown, I kept thinking Anaïs Mitchell is like a modern day Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Her epic lyrical narratives echo Guthrie’s masterful talent for blending the literary with the ordinary, while her fierce and unique vocal phrasing as well as her intricately multi-layered arrangements take Dylanesque to a whole new realm. Young Man in America, which features guests Chris Thile and Rachel Ries, will be released on Mitchell’s new independent label, Wilderland Records, on February 28th. I don’t think it premature to predict it will be on my year end list next December.
The sparse yet dramatic instrumental intro to the album’s opener, “Wilderland,” blooms into a haunting, humming choir of voices. The title of the track, coined by Anaïs after she witnessed a family being evicted from their home, gave her record label its name.
The album’s impressive title track is one of those songs that burrows deeper beneath the skin with each listen. Anaïs’ folk orchestra of players provide a lush and stunning arrangement, particularly in the horn-driven instrumental finale of the song.
The song’s lyrics, and the general theme of this entire song cycle, share the tale of a Prodigal Son of sorts. The titular “Young Man in America” is a rebellious youth seeking to quench his discontent and wanderlust with travels, drugs, alcohol and various other excesses and indulgences…all of which fail to satisfy his melancholy hunger.
Another wayward son / waiting on oblivion
Waiting on the kingdom come to meet me in my sin
Waiting to be born again / mother kiss me cheek & chin
“Dying Day” is another stunner with its choral harmonies, steady rhythm, poetic lyrics and Chris Thile’s lovely mandolin embellishments.
The beautifully tragic ballad “Shepherd,” based on her father’s novel The Souls of Lambs, sings of a worked-obsessed farmer whose wife dies in childbirth as he tends his fields.
The storm was o’er within the hour / the shepherd saw the sun come out
The shepherd’s wife saw ne’er again / he buried her and the babe within
He turned the seed into the ground / he brought the flock to feed thereon
He held the cleaver and the plow / & the shepherd’s work was never done
Even tracks that didn’t initially captivate me, such as “Venus” and “Anne Marie”, grew on me with subsequent listens to the extent that I wondered why I didn’t love them at first listen.
To be honest, Young Man in America doesn’t compare to the magnificence of Hadestown or the delicate charm of 2007′s The Brightness. But then, what could? It’s probably like whatever Michelangelo created immediately after sculpting David and painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some artistic heights are simply too lofty to surpass no matter how gifted the artists or how great the subsequent art. Taken on its own merit, however, Young Man in America is both an ambitious recording project and a beautifully rich tapestry of classic folk songwriting. Anaïs Mitchell just may be my generation’s most talented singer-songwriter.
Carsie Blanton’s new album, Idiot Heart, will be released on January 31st. Carsie has opened for Paul Simon and also performed in stage productions of Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. Idiot Heart is an immensely charming collection of catchy jazz- and folk-influenced Americana. You can download two free, legal mp3s from the album below, then I suggest you buy the rest.
Ani Difranco‘s new album, Which Side Are You On?, will be released on January 17th and I have extremely mixed feelings about it…
The first two tracks on the album are so lifeless that I almost stopped listening, but the gritty, thunderous, magnificent title track is a whole other world.
Folk legend Pete Seeger joins Ani and her band for the revamped cover of “Which Side Are You On?.” I couldn’t imagine anyone doing as much justice to the song as Natalie Merchant did on The House Carpenter’s Daughter, but Ani’s version is astounding. She wrapped the original chorus of the union protest song in new verses with her pen aimed squarely at Washington.
“J” floats righteously angry political and social lyrics over a mellow, rhythmic melody that can only be described as swamp Reggae.
Unfortunately, the brilliance of those two songs emphasize how lackluster the other arrangements are. Of course, Ani’s lyrics are always strong even when the music fails to lift her voice up. If you’ve liked Ani’s quieter recent releases, you’ll probably like this one. But those of us that miss the harder sound of her earlier works will only find satisfaction in the two aforementioned tracks.