Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer
Album: Child Ballads
Label: Wilderland
Tracks: 7

American singer-songwriter Anaïs has always been strong on story-songs, with a key narrative element much in evidence on her last two CD projects, Young Man In America and the acclaimed folk-opera Hadestown. It's only natural, then, that for her new record she should choose to pursue her lifelong interest in the traditional ballads of the British Isles that crossed the Atlantic and became part of American tradition.

While touring with Jefferson Hamer back in 2010, she discovered the two of them shared a mutual passion for this heritage, and so they decided to collaborate on a proper recording of some of their favourites from the extensive Child ballad canon. After a couple of abortive attempts, they at last managed to lay down these seven tracks in quick time, with the minimum of production and simple "back-to-basics" acoustic arrangements revolving around intuitively skilled but undistracting twin-guitar settings and accomplished close-harmony vocals. (A few more tracks were laid down, apparently, but were rejected as being over-arranged… but I'd still be keen to hear them at some stage!)

The vocal-harmony mode may seem an unexpected one to take, considering the ballads' often intimidating long-time reputation and their established history of being sung solo and most times unaccompanied, but Anaïs and Jefferson make a good case for their own unison-in-harmony treatment, and those passages taken out and rendered solo necessarily make a proportionally greater impression (as on Clyde Waters, Tam Lin and Riddles Wisely Expounded aka Lay The Bent To The Bonny Broom). In a way (albeit not all the time), the pair's collaborative, harmony-rich approach to the storytelling activity reminded me of Australian duo Cloudstreet (although it must be said that the latter may also sometimes choose to adopt an altogether more theatrical stance, as in their consciously dramatised take on Child 6, Willie's Lady).

Anaïs and Jefferson's accounts of these ballads are interpretations of commendable directness, fluent and assured, that present a unified interpretive front to the attentive listener, while opting to eschew any artifice or over-emotive dramatisation, and although you might sometimes detect a touch of over-chirpiness in Anaïs' voice, especially on those occasions where she's singing solo and "exposed", this doesn't compromise the essence or thrust of the narrative and on the plus side can even seem to hint at a kind of quality of child-like (sic) wonder. The very sparseness of the instrumental scoring is always most welcome, as is the barest modicum of (splendidly non-intrusive) supplementary accompaniment from Viktor Krauss (bass), Crooked Still's Brittany Haas (fiddle) and Tim Lauer (accordion or pump organ).

Of course, it shouldn't come as a surprise to find contemporary American artists so much in sympathy with the ballad tradition: after all, there's a proven history of performing these ballads in the States (and remember, they were a key inspiration to Dylan and Baez in the early 1960s). And while Anaïs and Jefferson treat the sources with due respect, telling them straight without any inclination to excessively radicalising their interpretations either musically or textually, on the other hand they feel no shame in altering some of the "accepted" tunes. Indeed, their "revised" tunes for Sir Patrick Spens, Riddles Wisely Expounded, and especially Tam Lin, give a positively invigorating new spin on the texts we know so well and which it's been all too easy for us to devalue (or pass by) due to our familiarity with a particular melody. Similarly, although they've "bushwhacked" away some linguistic archaisms here and there in order to convince, or to demystify or clarify the meaning, they nevertheless feel no compulsion to rewrite the texts wholesale, preferring to retain as much as possible of what they term the "beautiful old language" which had attracted the singers in the first place.

All in all, I think "masterful" is the best description for Anaïs and Jefferson's eminently approachable set of interpretations of ballads that are often regarded as fearsome and highly unapproachable

David Kidman