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4.1 out of 5 stars
The Brightness
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2007
I'll admit from the outset that I am pre-disposed to love the new CD from Anais Mitchell. I've been a huge fan since first hearing her when she won the New Folk Contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 2003. I've presented her five times since then at my house concert series: twice as an opener, once in a split-bill with Rose Polenzani, once as part of the Tin Pan Caravan, and as a part of the 10th anniversary show for my series, along with Jack Hardy, Jack Williams, Andrew Calhoun, Dave Webber & Anni Fentiman (all of whom have been performing professionally since before Anais was born). I drove five hours to Vermont to attend three of the six performances of the opera, Hadestown, that she wrote, setting the Orpheus myth in a futuristic, Depression-era, company town. She sang "Shenandoah" here before it was finished, and decided not to discard "Old-Fashioned Hat" in light of the great response it got from the audience, myself, and the rest of the Tin Pan Caravan when she performed it here. I pre-ordered 20 copies of "The Brightness" to give as gifts. I would rank Anais among the top 10 acoustic singer/songwriters of the past 50 years.

The production places the voice prominently in the mix, making it sound very much like a live performance, despite the addition of a small number of (mostly acoustic) instruments to Anais' guitar. The arrangements are interesting, beautifully played, and effective in fleshing out the sound a bit, while leaving the brilliant lyrics front and center where they can be clearly understood on the first listen. Just like her live shows, Mitchell's CD grabs the listeners' attention at the start and doesn't let go until long after it ends. Background music it isn't. In fact, from talking to people and reading the early reviews, it's clear that some people find the timbre of her voice grating and simply can't listen to it, which is their loss.

Anais' artistic vision is at work on all levels. Not only does she see the trees, but also the forest and the leaves. The publicity materials for the album release give her own description of the thematic connections between the songs, so I'll concentrate on what I'm best at: the details.

Of the thousands of songwriters I've heard, only the late Dave Carter surpasses Anais in the natural and unselfconscious use of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme. Anais is at least as inventive as Dave was in placing the rhymes in unusual places in the line, viz. "Just aCROSS from the HOSpital/Still in SIGHT of the red LIGHTS/A couple of BLOCKS from the OrthoDOX church" and "I can see HER NOW in HER FLOWERy CLOTHES/All THOSE things I bought HER/Trailing HER PERfume wherevER she GOES/Across the rolling waTER".

The alliteration is at its most profuse in "Song of the Magi" and "Old-Fashioned Hat": "When we came, we came through the cold/We came bearing gifts of gold", where only three initial consonants appear in the first ten syllables, and "Summer went the way of Spring/Winter's waiting in the wings/We haven't saved anything".

The assonances are out in force in the density of long 'i' sounds in the first verse of "Shenandoah": "Lord have mercy on MY MIND/Mercy on MY memory/I'M LYing neath the same Virginia SKY/Where she lay beSIDE me, BIding TIME/TRYing to aBIDE me".

"Of A Friday Night" has one of the most original rhymes I've ever encountered: "I'm waiting in the shadows of the scaffolds of the old cafés". Not only does "waiting" provide an internal rhyme with the previous and next lines, and "shadows" have the same vowel sounds as "scaffolds", but "scaffolds" rhymes palindromically with "old cafés", reversing the order of the syllables!

Another extraordinary detail is the structure of "Song of the Magi". The whole song is structured like a palindrome. The first verse repeats (with some notable changes) at the end. The second verse (half as long as the first) repeats (in the present tense and the imperative voice instead of the past tense, with more modern garments) immediately before the last verse. The two central verses are of equal length, one recounting the birth of Jesus, describing him as "waiting for the war", and the other recounting the return of a modern Palestinian Christian to her native Bethlehem, finding the war: "welcome to the brawl". The shift from ancient to modern comes in the exact center of the song. When that shift happens, the use of the word "child" changes. In the earlier verse, it is used twice reverentially, in adoration of the baby. In the later verse, it is used three times in a condescending manner toward the young adult returning home and being regarded with suspicion in a war-torn border town.

I could go on and on, but these reviews and your patience have their limits. This is a brilliant and important piece of art.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I first heard Anais Mitchell's music at a folk conference in New York - I got a copy of her "Hymns for the Exiled" and wore it out listening to it. With this new release she's continued to grow and the results are really exciting. She is ferociously talented - lyrically original, harmonically and melodically daring. These songs are an example of why I love folk music - they are deep in meaning and rich in texture. Mitchell is a folk musician, as opposed to the countless indie rock out there using "acoustic" sounds but still stuck in a narrow, narcissistic rut - her subject matter casts a wide net and references traditional sources, all the while being something never heard before. These songs invite you to listen carefully and make connections. There is a serious intelligence and passionate heart behind them.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2007
Playing Time - 39:37 -- From Vermont, Anaïs Mitchell is a singer-songwriter with a precociously girlish voice. A winner of the New Folk competition at the Kerrville, Tx. Folk Festival, she's only in her 20s but has already released three albums since 2002. "The Brightness" is a debut on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe record label. With similar tempos and melodies, Mitchell's contemplative songs require astute listening and comprehension skills. Her lyrics need your focus and undivided attention. "Your Fonder Heart" demonstrates her wide vocal range as she sings "way over yonder I'm waiting and wondering, whether your fonder heart lies." The album's title is derived from the second track, "Of a Friday Night," a ballad that is full of nostalgic imagery as it paints a picture of a time-worn town with its old poet that once knew fullness in the quarter "out in the brightness of a Friday night." Carrying her own poetic and literary torch, Mitchell seems willing to assume various roles in the song as good time gambler, restless wife, or midnight writer if she can help revive that Friday night luster that once was. Her enthusiasm and optimism glow.

Embellished with Michael Chorney's melancholic saxophone, "Namesake" makes an exclamatory statement - "everybody knows you, nobody knows you, everybody knows you, I want to know you." I view the song as a search for identity among both oneself as well as another with whom your name is shared. "Shenandoah," one of the few tracks featuring Ben Campbell's banjo and background vocals, relates a tale of love lost, a reckless daughter of the rolling water. Accepting loss and pain can be stressful and demanding. We cope in different ways, and "Changer" seems to just ask for a little reconciliation and understanding: "I know love is a stranger, I know that changes come, I know love is a changer." While Anais' mainly plays guitar and sings, this song is the only one with her piano in the mix. Other instrumentation on the project includes some understated lap steel, bass, sax, organ, drums, viola, banjo and cello. Besides three songs with background vocals by Ben Campbell, some are also sung by Miriam Bernardo.

"Song of the Magi," a song awash in emotion, is set in a welcoming west bank town that, because of war, evolves into a town of hope. "Santa Fe Dream" is ambient and austere in the shadows, but Mitchell conveys a pleasurable sentiment - "if it should happen, if you should turn to see, the way that moon sheds her light, on your love where she sleeps, go lay down beside her, and wonder again, that such a small window, lets so much light in." I can sense that Anais loves to travel, and some of her inspiration comes from discoveries along her journeys. "Hobo's Lullaby" continues the album's sleepy, lulling atmosphere, and if there's one complaint, it might have been nice to orchestrate the set with a few moderately-tempo'ed pieces for some pick-me-ups. "Old-Fashioned Hat" is about not needing much to enjoy life and love, but the song ends on a pessimistic note that, following marriage, there will be fighting, drinking and forgetfulness. Inspired by Greek mythology, "Hades & Persephone" is presented as a conversation between the King and Queen of the Underworld. Hades obtained his queen through trickery, but Persephone seems astute enough to ask "what does he care for the logic of kings? the laws of your underworld? it is only for love that he sings! he sings for the love of a girl." Set in New Orleans, I interpret "Out of Pawn" as a tale written from Uncle Louie's heart and experience during the flood when it was realized that "the girl and the city were one and the same, and last call never came."

In lean, rawboned singer/songwriter fashion, Anais Mitchell's alluring feminine voice is the radiant and resplendent beam in each piece. With a buoyant and feathery presentation, the troubadour provides some novel interpretive tales and twists to emotional attachment, sensitive feelings, and even controversial political issues. I was hoping to peruse her lyrics for a much better understanding of this songwriter's muse. Instead, I'm just left with as many questions as answers. I understand that she gets considerable inspiration from "The Alexandria Quartet" (a 4-part novel series by Brit author Lawrence Durrell). She also once wanted to become a journalist. In a sense, "The Brightness" is a kind of musical diary or journal that documents her thoughts, happenings, and probably some fictional occurrences too. She writes very legibly, and I think her best Pulitzer prize-winning music may still be yet to come. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2007
i think this record is fantastic. of course, it's not quite as fantastic as hearing her play live, but it's fantastic none the less. and, if you have been so lucky as to hear her play live, you'll enjoy the record even more because it will take you right back to that concert. i often have pieces of 'the brightness' going through my head after i listen to it and it's lovely. i highly recommend this record!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This album has been reviewed more than once here, and quite well.

I just want to add this this woman's strange, little voice, while at first might be a little tough to sink into, give it a deep listen and sink you will. The breadth of her lyrics, the unique perspectives of her subject matter, and the expressiveness of her voice are truly amazing. There is melancholy and joy here simultaneously - a rich way of seeing the world, and a wonderful way of living life. There is dance and movement here as well as meditation, vulnerability as well as power, and a feminity that is open to the feminine side of all human beings.

For those interested in the technical aspects of the music - the arrangements and instrumentation are impecabble: horns, all kinds of plucked strings, piano, hammond organ, and so on. The ablum as a collection is excellently paced - opens like a breeze and closes wisp of smoke rising and rising.

I have added this album into my very short mental collection of album masterpieces, which includes (not that any of these sound so much alike): Aqualung,The Wall,Rain Dogs,Little Plastic Castle,The Stranger,Crossing Muddy Waters,Blue (actually a mix of Mitchell and Mitchell would be GREAT!!), Close Your Eyes (Elling),How Did You Find Me Here,Evil Empire, Naked City... okay i'll stop listing.

This is a good album.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 2, 2007
I found out about Anais around 4 years ago. I heard Belly and the Beast on NPR and i had to find out who sang that. Ever since I'm so glad there are still artists out there that actually write good music. This album is no different, a little different from hymns, but albeit more interesting. I love it. And i love fonder heart...great song. That's it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2009
In my opinion, Anais Mitchell is one of the better modern folk artists out there today. Her voice is uniquely beautiful----she's more than the average breathy, weak voice that the majority of female folk and rock singers have these days. Her lyrics, too, are exceptionally crafted. The line "I'm not trying to bother you, I'm just trying to breathe you in" in "Changer" gets me every time. Get this album; it is entirely worth it.
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I don't know anyone like Anais Mitchel. She brings intelligence and a wonderful energy to a genre I don't normally enjoy.
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on October 2, 2012
I am so glad that I found Anais several years back. She is one of the most unique singers out there. Her music is so beautiful. I love most of the songs on here. Your fonder heart, Namesake, Shenandoah, and Changer and Old Fashioned hat are my standout picks. I haven't gotten around to her latest release yet, but I will.
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on March 19, 2012
One of my all time favorite albums. Like many acquired tastes, the more you listen to it the more beautiful and complex it becomes.
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