Album Review: Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, “Child Ballads”

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Vermont-born singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell garnered many accolades last year with Young Man in America, her fourth solo release of original material. 

Her new album is a collaboration with her friend Jefferson Hamer: Child Ballads, a collection of traditional songs taken from a larger five-volume collection of ballads (and the wellspring of Anglo-American folk tradition).

These are not children's songs. The name comes from the collector, an American Harvard University professor named Francis James Child.

In the late 19th century, Child collected 305 songs, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, and published them under the name The English and Scottish Ballads.

Child collected the songs as text. Because of this, the lyrics are often sung to various original or traditional melodies.

The subject matter often deals with lords and ladies, captains, witches, fairies, peasants and maidens, all tangled in a lengthy narrative of love and treachery, sorcery, incest, deceit and deception, usually culminating with a murder, a drowning (or two) or a hanging. Most of these dark tales would send a child into therapy for a lifetime.

During the transatlantic folk revival in the 1960s, these ballads were ripe for the picking by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and were often employed by the British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. More recently, bands as diverse as Ween, The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes have delved into the collection. 

This recent interpretation of seven ballads is simple, straightforward and unaffected. The production is clean and crisp. Nearly all the arrangements feature beautiful close-harmony singing throughout with both guitarists supplying complimentary, tasteful, intertwining accompaniment.

The predominant duet sound is occasionally bolstered by a fiddle part from Brittany Haas (of Crooked Still), Tim Lauer's accordion or a bass line by the great Nashville session man (and brother of Alison,) Viktor Krauss.

Anais Mitchell's last two critically acclaimed releases, the aforementioned Young Man in America and 2010's folk opera Hadestown, were both ambitious, large-scale projects based on myth and storytelling. 

Mitchell's original songs, with words and images tumbling over each other in verse after verse, sound as if they have been around as long as the traditional tunes. Although the words on Child Ballads are not hers, she and Hamer convey the tales as if they were. 

This is an exquisite collaborative project from two artists who not only know how to play well together but also understand the nature of folk music and how to deliver age-old songs with freshness, clarity and integrity.

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer will be playing at this year's Nelsonville Music Festival.