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4.8 out of 5 stars
Hadestown
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2010
I think it was W.H. Auden who warned poets against relying too heavily on subject matter pulled from the "myth-kitty." In the last thirty years or so, one of the most frequently used and abused myths has been that of Orpheus and Eurydice, a tale most famously presented in Ovid's Metamorphoses, though most movingly in Vergil's Georgica. In fact, the myth has become a kind of emotional short-hand, allowing writers of all stripes to indulge their own fantastic visions of themselves as heroic figures attempting to rescue lost love from oblivion. In short, the myth has been popularized, and, as often happens with what becomes popularized, its strength has been diminished by repeated usage, the way a statue's hand can be worn away by generations of passersby high-fiving or shaking it.

And yet one of the best, and most over-looked, records of 2010 has been Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown, which recasts the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in a setting that is at once a mid-twentieth-century mining town and also the timeless city of Death. With Hadestown, which is a record adapted from a musical play, Mitchell presents Orpheus and Eurydice as sweet-singing rustics, who are separated when Eurydice is ultimately lured to "Hadestown," a kind of materialistic big-business world governed by Hades, suggesting the spiritual death of "selling out." The new terms added to the myth allow the songs a great range of styles, from NPR-friendly contemporary folk to a kind of vaudevillian swing.

The retelling of this myth is strengthened by the spectacular cast who take part in the record. Mitchell herself voices Eurydice, and uses the soft drawl of her voice to evoke everything from desire to pity. Her performance is strong, but the show is stolen by Orpheus, appropriately voiced by the angelic Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver and Volcano Choir fame. Vernon's vocals are so filled with sweetness and longing, much like on For Emma, Forever Ago, that one doesn't doubt his claim in the album's opener, "Wedding Song": "Lover, when I sing my song, / all the rivers sing along." One would not be terribly surprised if one were to see Vernon, himself a sweet-singing rustic, sing a few soft strains in an open meadow only to be joined by the river and the trees. His voice is capable of animating everything around it.

Another standout performance is delivered by none other than Ani DiFranco, who voices Hades' wife, Persephone. DiFranco proves, as if she needed to, that she is capable of belting swaggering honkey-tonk tunes, such as "Our Lady of the Underground," just as much as whispering tender plaints on "How Long?" And Greg Brown, who voices Hades, presents a voice so deep and gravelly, one wonders if his vocal coach was James Earl Jones. His baritone grumbling and bellowing are nothing short of convincing as the musings of the King of Death.
But these stand-out guest-spots are all in the service of Mitchell's song-writing. Having seen what Sappho could do with Greek and Horace could do with Latin, I am forever hesitant of comparing song lyrics with poetry, and yet there are moments of genuine poetic force in many of these songs. On "Wait for Me," a back-and-forth duet in which Vernon's Orpheus questions Hermes, voiced by Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, about how he might reach Hadestown and reclaim his lost love, Hermes warns, "That town will suck you dry.../ They'll pluck the heart right out your chest / They'll truss you up in your Sunday best / And stuff your mouth with cotton." The particularity of that last image is devastating in that it makes death incredibly real, while simultaneously suggesting that it is the way of Hadestown, as it is the way of the world of big-business, to silence even the sweetest singers with comfort, with cotton. That comfort brings about a spiritual death is a recurrent theme of the album (Hades at one point, while luring Eurydice to join him, mocks Orpheus by saying, "You'll give him your hand / He'll give you his hand to mouth / He'll write you a poem when the power's out"). And here, we see Orpheus facing the same type of conformity-death: it is the comfort of cotton that will silence him, the financial resources of Hadestown that will shut him up, that will kill his song.

And yet Mitchell's songs are not simply collections of memorable lines, though of those there are many. Rather, she uses them all to support her considerable talent at building mimetic song structures. For instance, the song "Why We Build the Wall," utilizes the ever-growing structure of the round, an unlikely choice for a contemporary pop tune, to mimic the way in which propaganda builds on propaganda until a type of rhetorical wall is built. One can only admire the way in which Mitchell uses the circular reasoning of nationalistic propaganda to build just such a rhetorical wall between the living and the dead. The final chorus of the song, in its ironic presentation of Hadestown's reasoning for building a wall to separate its inhabitants from the "living," whom we might associate with the artists such as Orpheus, goes as following: "What do we have that they should want? / We have a wall to work upon! / We have work and they have none / And our work is never done / My children, my children / And the war is never won / The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free / That's why we build the wall / We build the wall to keep us free / We build the wall to keep us free". Note how surreptitiously we find through a dramatic irony that building the wall becomes its own justification. As the round grows, and a chorus of voices is singing, we hear echoes of the recent political propaganda encouraging the building of a wall to separate The United States from Mexico. Indeed, it can be astonishing how relevant this record is to our current social and political climate; for all its beauty Hadestown is not just a pretty record about an imaginary world, but a trenchant commentary on the American culture of the present.

And what Hadestown ultimately says about our culture is unpleasant. Orpheus and Eurydice are separated by Eurydice's understandable pragmatism; she is hungry and doesn't see a realistic financial future with the great poet and singer. As one song states, "Things get mean when the chips are down." Consequently, she joins the money-hungry world of Death, and Orpheus, for all his love, cannot bring her back. Anyone who knows contemporary artists and poets recognizes this dilemma; art in our culture is, lamentably, not a viable means of self-sustenance, let alone a foundation for building a family. And, more often than not, even those who are not soulless suits, those who have souls and love art, are tempted to leave their inner-lives behind to work day-jobs, to enter the "real-world." As Eurydice sings at one point, we are tired and we "want to lie down forever." Unfortunately, as Hadestown suggests, that "real-world" is a world of lies and greed; the real real world is the world of poetry and song. But, as Flannery O'Connor said, "We all prefer comfort to joy." Most of us embalm ourselves and stuff our mouths with cotton. Most of us sign our lives away to make a living, and there is no singer sweet enough to bring us back to the beautiful and magical living worlds inside us. Or is there?
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2010
One of the many great things about "Hadestown" is that it was originally designed as a stage show; the practical considerations required to pull something like that off require tighter, clearer storytelling than most "concept albums" have. Although totally different in tone and genre, "Hadestown" stands alongside "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" in my mind as one of the two or three albums-with-storylines that are worth listening to.

Hell--forget "worth listening to"; "Hadestown" is a masterpiece.

My only two criticisms:
1: Brown doesn't seem like the perfect choice for Hades. His gravelly voice is full of menace, but it sounds a little too wrecked sometimes; Hades has to be slick and--in a way--sexy, but he comes of more like a military man than a conniving tycoon.
2: The longish instrumental intros to many of the songs work onstage (I saw an early production of "Hadestown" a couple of years ago), but they slow the pace a bit in the album.

One more note of praise: as much as I love Mitchell's voice, I was pleased by the balance in "Hadestown"; she wrote the songs, but she's smart and humble enough to keep herself out of center stage enough to create a nice panorama.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2010
I've been waiting for this album ever since I heard Mitchell perform "Why We Build the Wall" as an opening act for Susan Werner, and the lyrics gave me chills. On Hadestown, she manages to create several more such moments, in the songs "Hey, Little Songbird," "If It's True" and "Doubt Comes In." Not every song in this cycle is of the same caliber: "How Long?" in particular is conspicuously weak. But "Wedding Song" is sublime, and "Way Down Hadestown" and "When the Chips Are Down" are more fun than should be legal. Mitchell makes particularly effective use of theme-and-variations repetition in her lyrics, percussive instrumentation, and quasi-Appalachian melodies and harmonies. I have literally had some of these songs stuck in my head for days. They've even gotten into my dreams. How many musicians can pull off a stunt like that?
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2010
As awe-inspiring as the live production was, it's a pleasure to hear this come together as an album, so varied yet cohesive and so impeccably cast. Here Mitchell and arranger Michael Chorney can paint from a rich palette of voices as well as styles. The many highlights include Greg Brown as Hades. Begun years ago, this work has been shaped by countless live performances, giving it a feeling of inevitability despite its freshness and allowing it to avoid the pitfalls of most "concept albums" that stretch to remain on message. By (un)happy coincidence, the Depression era atmospherics also seem timelier than ever. Highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2011
I originally ordered this CD on a whim; I was teaching Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice to an intro level Women's Studies class and I wanted to see if this CD would be a good complement to the play. I thought I might find a song or two worth playing for the class, something to add another dimension to our discussion of the reinterpretation of mythology and cultural stories. When I listed to the CD in its entirety, it felt like nothing less than a revelation.

Grandiose? Perhaps. But what I mean by a revelation is that is cut through my pop culture sensibilities that had fallen in love one too many times with disposable, guilty pleasure music. Not only was this music crafted and complex, it carried an emotional resonance beyond what I was used to hearing, even in indie rock, folk, and other types of "serious" music. And who doesn't love a concept album done well by talented musicians?

And talent is perhaps the greatest asset of this collection. Mitchell's ethereal voice is wonderful as the conflicted Eurydice, but becomes part of a large and ever more satisfying tapestry when combined with the quirky vulnerability/strength of Ani DiFranco (Persephone), the earthy growl of Greg Brown (Hades), the homespun harmonizing of the Haden Triplets (The Fates), the strangely affecting Ben Knox Miller (Hermes), and of course Justin Vernon as the naive but determined Orpheus.

The entire album is really wonderful to listen to with no real low points; if asked to highlight the really special gems, I would recommend the following:
*-When The Chips Are Down (Haden Triplets)-This number is upbeat and biting, the harmonizing excellent, and the only criticism I can give it is that it is far too brief.
*-Flowers, Eurydice's Song (Anais Mitchell)-It is the best combination of bittersweet regret with sensual awakening possible. Mitchell's airy voice is especially suited to this track.
*-Why We Build The Wall (Greg Brown)-This song, representing the indoctrination of the workers in Hadestown, reveals the genius of Greg Brown as Hades. This is no slick Faustian deal-making demon. Brown returns Hades firmly to his mythological roots: he is a powerful god who achieves his goals primarily through brute force of will, relying on subtler manipulations only when absolutely necessary.
*If It's True (Justin Vernon)-In myth, Orpheus used his music to melt the hardest heart in the underworld, that of Hades himself. Though this is not meant to be the song that achieves this feat, it certain could be. This simply constructed song is filled with tragic beauty.

My only complaint (which isn't exactly a complaint at all) is the instrumental tracks: though all are wonderful pieces of music, they never really seem to fit the point in the "narrative" that they are supposed to represent.

Overall this album has an almost cinematic quality (not entirely surprising since it was originally conceived a stage production somewhere between a play and a concert) that would make an excellent film adaptation and a welcome departure from the typical Hollywood celluloid musical.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2010
I heard about this album from an interview with singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell on NPR. The small snippet from "Why We Build the Wall" was enough to get me to buy the album, and I was not disappointed. Every song is a surprise, advancing the story line in an intriguing way. Every time I listen, I discover something new, some cunning turn of phrase or wonderful harmony. I especially love the voice of Orpheus--he achieves an unearthly, magical sound that is perfect for his role. In my book, all the singers hit a home run on this album, packing the phrasing with emotion and intent. Brava, Anais Mitchell.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2010
2010 is turning into an astonishing year for new albums from female singers. Thus far we have great albums from Laura Marling, Sharon Van Etten, Natalie Merchant, Patti Griffin and Laura Viers and to this stellar list we must now add "Hadestown" by Anais Mitchell. Conceived in her home in rural Vermont it is an entire album or more precisely a folk opera about the Orpheus and Eurydice saga (blessedly free of Offenbach style "Can Cans"), in which a devoted musician travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead bride. But in addition she takes on board new themes in "Hadestown" set in the American depression era but prefiguring some very current issues. It would take a thesis to explain all this and if you want more info check out her recent fascinating interview on NPR for a thorough telling of the underpinning concept. The key fact is that the music throughout is absolutely out of the top drawer.

So who is in the cast list of this vast folk opera? Ladies and Gentleman we have -

Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) as Orpheus
Greg Brown as Hades,
Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem) as Hermes,
Ani DiFranco as Persephone,
Anais Mitchell herself in the role of Eurydice

Unsurprisingly each shines brightly particularly Greg Brown who brings a Tom Waits like granite quality to the album and overall it is a mighty collaboration from a range of musicians who are at the top of their game. Highlights on a very long album include the sparkling opener "Wedding song" a duet between Mitchell and Vernon which is just beautiful and very accessible. Mitchell's voice clearly will lead to some comparisons with Joanna Newsom but is has its distinctive edge and the standard of her song writing throughout is first class. "Our Lady of the Underground" is a sassy tale of Dr John Style jazz with a great vocal supplied by Ani DiFranco and "Wait for me" with Ben Knox Miller a true highlight with Miller's quite sinister spoken vocal introduction confirming the Tom Waits direction which the Low Anthem followed on one of the best albums of 2009 "Oh My God Charlie Darwin". Miller appears again on the wonderful duet with Mitchell on the gospel based "Way down in Hadestown" with a trumpet solo straight out of Jungle book, and in a similar vein the Hades Triplets "When the chips are town" is as catchy as hay fever from a ploughed wheat field.

The star however throughout is Anais Mitchell with her "Eurydice" a potential classic. It is a piano slow ballad with her lush vocal and a playful violin making this both sweet but very poignant. I mentioned Greg Brown's role earlier and he is a revelation. "Hey Little Songbird" is a bluesy highlight and his "Hades" is totally believable. Finally full marks should go to the great ending of the album with a deep and ominous cello leading into the mournful "Doubt comes in" combining a vocal from Vernon and Michael Corney's arrangements which are Mitchell's secret weapon throughout. While finally I doubt a more sumptuous duet will be heard on any album this year than the lovely closer "I raise my cup to him" with Ani DiFranco again providing a sterling counterpoint to the lighter voice of Mitchell. This has been a difficult review to write of an album packed with highlights and with an intriguing conceptual basis. Space precludes touching on more that 50% of the goodies contained within and like Natalie Merchants recent epic "Leave your sleep" it will take time to fully reveal itself, but also like that album it is a concept that could have fallen flat but actually works brilliantly and is delivered with real verve. The consequence of all this it at following the huge earlier promise shown on albums like "The Brightness", Anais Mitchell enters stage door left as a new and immense force on the music scene.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2011
friends took us to this rock opera a beautiful resonant take on greek mythology-- so captivated by the performance, I borrowed my friend's copy until my Amazon order came in (so quickly too!) I play it, sing and dance to it all over the house.
Musically I'm a techno-peasant, but hearing songs sung in minor keys fills my soul. Worthy of an indie film!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2011
What can I say? I'm not a professional music reviewer, but this album is quickly becoming one of my favorites of all time. The "guest stars" are all spot on; Greg Brown steals the show as Hades, and Ani DiFranco is great as a witty and devious Persephone. Anais has a quirky voice that many may dislike, but she's a great songwriter and a great singer.

The package is excellent (was nominated for a grammy in, of all categories, packaging design), and comes with a nice lyrics booklet. Well worth listening to, and well worth owning.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2010
I had heard an interview on NPR Radio about the Hadestown Cd with selections from the album and was very anxious to hear the whole CD. I bought two because I was sure that my daughter would also like it. She loved it as did I. The music and lyrics are wonderfully creative and unique. It led me to look up the play and more about the artists who created this work. I would highly recommend it to others.
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