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Anna & Elizabeth Anna & Elizabeth
Album: The Invisible Comes To Us
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Tracks: 11

Anna Roberts-Gewalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle’s eponymous 2015 second album was one of the key releases of that year, and received a healthy count of column inches on this site. The duo’s simple, refreshingly largely unadorned takes on deep tradition felt entirely natural and in keeping with – nay, inextricably bound to – the places and landscapes the songs inhabited.

Album number three, the cryptically titled The Invisible Comes To Us, takes this elemental approach one stage further, though not in the way one might’ve expected (by paring down the bones even more but instead to project the songs’ timeless human relevance outwards into the modern age through intense, expanded and almost subliminally experimental settings that surround the songs with an even more atmosphere-laden soundscape. As Anna and Elizabeth themselves state on the liner note, “this record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs – which led us on our own winding path collecting sounds and soundmakers that would help us in our quest”. The ladies’ raw-edged vocals, while still totally connected to – and right inside – the minds and situations of the songs’ protagonists, have become more contemplative, while some unusual, newly minimal brand of instrumentation now offsets the bare-wired emotional responses of the singers with an unsettling, often prickly cushion for a bed. This apparent sea-change is born of Anna’s recent wholesale immersion in Brooklyn’s avant-garde musical-experimental community, itself a result of her perennial musical curiosity; this overlays her presentational integrity, and the results are often very surprising indeed – and yet intensely, and logically, satisfying for the receptive listener not hide-bound by traditional delivery modes.

The source material trawled by Anna and Elizabeth this time round comes from a relatively narrow geographical area – their home states of Virginia and Vermont – and to a large extent from recordings and collections made in the 40s. The duo’s bold reconfigurations of these songs emphasise to an even greater extent than hitherto their sense of connection to both narratives and the places. Textures may still be simple, but they’re cut from an altogether different sonic cloth and weave a starkly rich tapestry from unfamiliar colours. Pedal steel, brass, woodwinds, synthesisers and a modicum of drumming, all contribute to the hauntingly unworldly, almost out-of-world aura of these new settings. And at the same time Anna and Elizabeth readily acknowledge the more experimental of their peers (Patti Smith and Meredith Monk through to Laurie Anderson – don’t often hear mentioned in the same breath!).

The album’s bookended by references of the singing of Margaret Shipman of Lee, Massachusetts, as collected by Helen Hartness Flanders in 1940; the album ends with the very source recording from which its opening song is drawn. Anna and Elizabeth’s reimagining of the parting song Jeano begins with Anna in modest a cappella, then both Anna and Elizabeth in harmony, before voyaging out on a pulsating sea of reedy drone and distant birdsong before a sepulchral ancient pump-organ brings a more solid footing, gradually subsiding in chiming gamelan timbres. An extraordinary, visionary reading, and a brilliantly chosen prelude for an album of startling originality. The tale of Black Eyed Susan proceeds with Elizabeth intoning to a doomy processional with impressively moody yet subdued drumming (Jim White), some brooding, atmospheric, almost Thompson-esque guitar and ominously warm brass tones. A delicate parlour-room clock rhythm beats its quiet tattoo through Ripest Of Apples, whose lovers’ obsession and warning is voiced almost playfully amidst trombone, banjo and a climactic rush of synthesised sound. By which standard John Of Hazelgreen is almost austere, although it brings gorgeous harmonies set against muted banjo and guitar and reedy-flutey timbres.

Two tracks in particular exemplify the most radical of the new album’s treatments. The first is accorded to the strange ballad Irish Patriot, whose near-inscrutability is mirrored in the collage-like backdrop conjured by Anna with album co-producer Benjamin Lazar Davis (from avant-pop outfit Cuddle Magic), whereby the disembodied sampled ghost of singer Hanford Hayes, from whom Helen Hartness Flanders collected the song in 1940, breaks through the radio static of the ages into the body of the text, its minimalist drone and breathy jazz saxophone outpourings. The second, By The Shore, emerges naturally out of the earlier Woman Is Walking (the album’s only non-traditional item, and a brief snippet conjured by the duo out of song ideas). It takes the form of a modernistic Laurie Anderson-like cacophony of spoken word and atonal keyboard interjections, with whispered voicings of the protagonist’s state of mind – a bit like Jackson Pollock meets musique-concrète perhaps. Between these tracks, the ostensibly authentic vocal delivery of Virginia Rambler is given a truly disturbing edge by stabbing drumbeats and restless keyboard figures whose choppy seas get to dominate. Farewell To Erin sets its languid lament as a mesmerising sean-nós melisma with elongated phrasing offset against discordant drones (here I feel a strong influence from our favourite Dublin band Lankum). The gospel-mode Mother In The Graveyard is almost playful (and the closest this album gets to Gillian Welch), highly infectious in its deliberate sing-song patterning; but again the overall effect is that of viewing the lyrics through another obscure dimensional gauze, the layers of the ages.

So this is what’s hidden there in the ether – the invisible that comes to us through the good auspices of Anna and Elizabeth. This album is a definite ground-breaker, a year’s-best-list cert, and a literally unique, very powerful and intensely haunting experience.

David Kidman