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CHILD'S PLAY: Mitchell (right) and Jefferson Hamer.
Crash Avenue
CHILD'S PLAY: Mitchell (right) and Jefferson Hamer.

Folk surprise

Music | Anaïs Mitchell is hauntingly compelling in Child Ballads

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

Boosted early on by her association with the petulantly radical Ani DiFranco and recently by tours with the insufferably fey Bon Iver, Anaïs Mitchell might seem like the singer-songwriter least likely to swerve into a starkly seminal artistic mother lode of Western folk expression.

But swerve into it she has, with her latest album based on The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by 19th-century British scholar Francis James Child. Simply titled Child Ballads (Wilderland), the collection finds Mitchell and her fellow acoustic-guitar-playing singer-songwriter Jefferson Hamer recreating seven of Child’s 305 selections with a gimlet eye on the past and an echolating ear on the present.

The best-known, owing perhaps to its inclusion in decades’ worth of American high-school English literature textbooks, is “Sir Patrick Spens,” a tale of doomed seamanship to which Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” can merely hold a candle. And the intertwining of Mitchell’s gauzily girly voice and Hamer’s second-fiddle tenor evokes a suitably ominous mood.

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The ballad, however, is more than a tragedy set to music. Spens meets his doom not primarily because he’s tempest tossed but because he has been ordered to sea by a king for whom naval glory is more important than the lives of his best and brightest subjects. Therein lies a perennially cautionary tale.

The chief pleasure of Mitchell and Hamer’s other six Child renditions is discovering that, obscurer though their source material may be, they contain hauntingly eloquent wisdom that remains similarly relevant.

Truth be told, the seeds of Mitchell’s fascination with folk balladry and the truth value inherent in its simplicity of expression were beginning to blossom in 2012 on her all-originals album Young Man in America. It’s nice to find that fascination one year later in full bloom.

Humor and the Beatles

The Medieval Age also felicitously rears its head—once—on the otherwise depressingly unrewarding Abbey Load (Oglio). The latest in a string of heavy-metal Beatles tributes by a Milwaukee band of (alleged) humorists known as Beatallica, the album fails both as music and as humor.

Still, Beatallica’s version of “Blackbird” (one of the project’s many anachronisms in that “Blackbird” debuted not on Abbey Road but on The Beatles [aka the White Album]) comes close to justifying the experiment. Beautifully arranged as an acoustic instrumental and transposed into a minor key, it could almost pass for a 16th-century John Dowland composition for lute.

The Beatles and humor deriving from contemporary styles can, however, yield entertaining results. Take, for instance, the latest album by the 34-year-old, Irish-Italian “underground” Ohio rapper Copywrite, aka Peter Nelson. 

Its title, Carbon Copy’s Phony Art Pub Scam (Man Bites Dog), tips listeners off: Atop song-length samples from the Beatles’ most famous album (and films, 2Pac, and the Beach Boys), Nelson waxes lyrical, cleverly summarizing his abandonment of the druggy lifestyle and, on three songs, his return to the Christian faith he first embraced at age 16.

“I’ve been underground in a shell, / feels like I’m bound in hell, / but I found the well,” he raps in “High with Friends.”  “Go into the light that is Christ” (“I Love Lucy”).  “As far as [the Satanist Aleister] Crowley, I don’t get down with that, brother. / You’ll probably see Jesus Christ on my back” (the title cut).

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there’s more. Nine of the album’s 13 songs contain dollops of the profanity and/or vulgarity with which rap, underground and topside, has long been identified.

One wishes Nelson the best. Alas, his best is obviously yet to come. —A.O.


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