Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads
It was only a year ago that Anaïs Mitchell delivered her last set of haunting and poignant songs. Then, the focus was America. She told tales of discovery, wonder and loss. The great American novel, or collection of short stories at least, in musical form. This time she has a new singing buddy, Jefferson Hamer, and her focus has shifted across the water to England and Scotland. Together, they’ve recorded a selection of traditional child ballads. Equally haunting and poignant, they’re stories of loss and yet more loss rather than discovery and wonder, but they would seem to be a perfect match both for Anaïs Mitchell’s folky sound and for her lyrical predispositions. So, what went wrong? Well, part of the problem is the subject matter. Previously, when she has transported the themes of innocence, love, and tragedy to new lands, like on Young Man in America, or when she has retold the oldest tales in brand new form, as on Hadestown, the result has been revelatory. The creative act generating new insights into old dilemmas. Here, though, she seems hemmed in by the material. The voice seems inauthentic. The stories are recited rather than reframed. This is a real shame because vocally Mitchell and Hamer are a wonderful match. Bon Iver is a tough act to follow, but Hamer complements Mitchell beautifully. Yet, however lovely they sound, together they seem to somehow rush through the material. An album of dirges would have been unbearable, but sometimes there seems to be no stopping the story. It’s a race to the end. Compare the delivery here with almost any song by The Unthanks. With similar material, including the odd child ballad, The Unthanks communicate the tragedy at the heart of the story with huge and yet restrained emotion. There’s no such feeling here. On paper, Anaïs Mitchell singing classic songs of hope and despair seems like a sure-fire winner. Here, though, the result is surprisingly emotionless. Expect the feeling to return with her next album of original material.