Album Reviews

Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads

(Wilderland) UK release date: 11 February 2013

Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - Child BalladsFrom the quietest and most intimate of beginnings, Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s musical journey has blossomed into expansive full band arrangements, via Michael Chorney’s brilliant arrangements for the ambitious folk opera Hadestown. This set of interpretations of songs from the Francis James Child ballad collection, recorded with friend and musical colleague Jefferson Hamer (Hamer played lead guitar in Mitchell’s touring band), therefore comes as something of an unexpected detour.

The arrangements are largely stripped back and unadorned, focusing mainly on the acoustic qualities of the performances and, appropriately, on the words. The occasional flourish of fiddle or the odd accompanying drone add a dose of mystery or adventure where appropriate.

Mitchell’s two consecutive masterpieces Hadestown and Young Man In America demonstrated her mastery of many American folk idioms. Admirers of those albums may not, however, have been aware of Mitchell’s enduring love for the folk music of the British Isles, nor perhaps of the extent of the influence of these songs on the American folk tradition (a number were included in Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music). Mitchell has studied and absorbed this music carefully, and it has clearly
informed the strong narrative streak in her own work. At last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, Mitchell showed visible delight at getting to meet the great Nic Jones, a man who has made a major contribution to keeping the torch of English folksong alight.

The ballads often tell stark tales of tragedy or violence, sometimes with a supernatural element. Mitchell and Hamer’s treatment of these songs appears, at least on the surface, to emphasise smoothness and a careful blend over disruption or pain. Over time, Mitchell’s voice has lost some of its initial harshness and become softer and cuter, and Hamer’s voice tends towards gentle, amiable, sympathetic tones. The two combine mellifluously, creating more of a sense of comfort than of conflict.

Some have found this approach too saccharine for the material. Whilst there is little of the stormy, turbulent quality a band such as Fairport Convention once brought to Tam Lin (which Mitchell and Hamer tackle with more restraint here), there is a peculiar kind of strength and austerity to be found in the confidence and clarity with which Mitchell and Hamer deliver these long, wordy tales. The warmth of the production and the cosy intimacy of both the vocal and instrumental blends have a rather hypnotic effect that provides a purposeful contrast with the gravity and torment of the stories themselves. This produces a distinctive and curious tension within the performances.

With just seven tracks all clocking in at under seven minutes, Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads is unusually concise for this form of music and does not outstay its welcome. Within the acoustic, stripped back setting, there is also a satisfying amount of depth and variety in pacing and delivery. Willie’s Lady is dense and crowded, whilst the opening interpretation of Willie of Winsbury seems lusher and more expressive. Perhaps best of all is the marvellous, clinging refrain of Clyde Waters. There is little doubt that Mitchell and Harmer have studied this material carefully – and their own take on it is insightful and frequently majestic.

buy Anais Mitchell MP3s or CDs
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More on Anais Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell @ Little Theatre, Gateshead
Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads
Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man In America
Anaïs Mitchell @ Union Chapel, London
Anaïs Mitchell – late addition to the next big thing?

  • Kim Hadleigh

    Er, thats ‘based around the Orpheus myth, set in a post apocalyptic, great depression era America’-
    not space suits, more old fashioned hats…

  • Pleased you picked up on Anais. She is already big in the States as anything on Righteous Babe- Ani DiFranco’s label, is immediately opened up to all her adoring fans and rightly so. She is so refreshing, unlike Little Boots, Florence & The Machine or Lady Gaga who seem to be repeating something we’ve all heard before.

  • Hi Gabby. Nice to see you on here!
    What’s odd about Righteous Babe stuff is that it doesn’t seem to translate to a wide audience over here in the way you say it does Stateside. Ani’s forever showcasing her roster as support acts in her own tours, such as Hamell on Trial, who supported when I saw her at Bush Hall in 2007. But there doesn’t seem to be any follow-through. She relies on word of mouth, and what marketing she and her organisation does do almost seems to be grudgingly done.
    And maybe that’s where those derided marketing departments come in. They create a base from which an artist can continue to make music because funds come in and they have, if you like, a career.
    As for my near-neighbour Florence, give a girl a chance. She’s not even released an album yet.
    So I wonder if the real target of ire ought not to be the marketing departments or the artists, but the BBC’s Sound of 2009 (or whichever year it is) poll.
    Has it actually polarised opinion about the acts it mentions so much that people ‘in the know’ in music have actually started to shy away from the acts it recommends? And not because of the acts themselves, but because they don’t like the feeling of having an elite ramming its opinions down the collective throat of the masses?
    I cite Tim’s recent White Lies review:
    He spent a whole paragraph deciding they were worthy of a mere star for their debut album because of their temerity to be featured in the poll. If they’d not been featured, I wonder if Tim would’ve reviewed in the way he did. He can answer for himself, of course.
    There’s a feature in there ^^ somewhere…

  • @ Kim Hadleigh: important distinction. Corrected now.

  • Tim Lee

    No. I probably wouldn’t have. But I my ire is elastic, push it far enough with your incessant and unnecessary hyping up of bands and it snaps back with a mighty force.
    Frankly, the spirit of those ‘Sound Of…’ lists has been lost. The original, or at least the romantic, reason for them should be akin to a trusted friend sharing the benefit of their knowledge with others. There should be no ulterior motive.
    Now, it’s a just a competition. A bunch of self-righteous arseholes sitting in a windowless bunker trying to outdo each other in terms of predicting trends.
    Plus, it’s now just self-perpetuating. Bands become the ‘Sound of 2009’ because they’ve appeared in the poll tipping them as the ‘Sound of 2009’.
    A Baudrillardian nightmare. So what’s the point?

  • Michael- thank you for the reply- well said. I saw Ani at The Forum last year and although it was one of my favourite gigs ever I couldn’t escape the feeling that 90% of the audience were Americans/ Canadians and that she was really just singing to them and slightly mocking the English!!
    I feel I should apologise for my comment on Florence – I know what its like to not get down on record what you have in your head and to fall into traps- I do have a lot of respect for her and the fact that she has a wonderful Harp player in her band. Good luck to her.
    X Gabby

  • John Murphy

    Ooh a busy blog! Thanks for the tip about Anais Rob, she sounds just up my strasse as they say in Germany. I’m going to toddle off in a moment and investigate further. Anything Ani-eaque (the reason I started writing for OMH, 8 years ago) is good for me.
    Anyway, this Sound of 2009 poll business. I can kind of see what Tim means – music seems to be being taken over by people who are determined to see themselves as “tastemakers”, as if anyone has the right to dictate to someone else what they should be enjoying.
    However the fact that acts have been featured in such a poll doesn’t mean we should automatically hate them. Personally, I don’t like White Lies, because to me it’s something that’s been done before by much better bands such as Interpol and – yes, I can hear you tutting now – Editors (sorry, I still like them).
    But I love Florence & The Machine just as much now as when I heard very rough demos of Girl With 1 Eye and Hospital Beds. And the fact that she appears to be the music business’ tip for success in exactly the same way that Adele was last year hasn’t put me off her in the slightest.
    Same goes for Passion Pit, who I picked up on after hearing a review on the Guardian’s podcast, listened to the EP and loved it. Just because they’re gaining popularity now doesn’t mean I’m embarrassed to be listening to them.

  • John Murphy

    Oh and the whole Ani thing – I saw her in New York a few years and was taken aback at how frenzied the audience were, especially compared to the handful of times I’ve seen her in Manchester. So yeah, something is definitely being lost on us Brits as she’s probably my favourite singer/songwriter of the last decade.