Most helpful positive review
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A Brilliant Album
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.