A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANAÏS MITCHELL – xoa (2014)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 2014
Review by: Graham Warnken

Anaïs Mitchell can certainly never be accused of a lack of ambition. Her most well-known project is the folk opera Hadestown (currently playing as an acclaimed Off-Broadway show), which transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a Great Depression-type American dystopia and features guests such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Orpheus) and Ani DiFranco (Persephone). The fact that that album is even coherent is an achievement—that it’s one of the best releases of its year is incredible.

Due to her fans’ desire to see many of the full-band numbers from Hadestown and its follow-up Young Man in America recorded solo, as well as Mitchell’s desire to release a few new songs and re-record earlier pieces she deemed unsatisfactory in their original form, 2014 saw the release of xoa. It’s an oddball fusion of a greatest-hits collection with an inverted demo reel, familiar numbers rendered new in their stripped-down format and new songs peeking their way through the sea of music from days gone by. Fortunately, what could have been a perfunctory toss-off ends up being a wonderful album in its own right, equalling and often outright improving upon the earlier material that gives it life.

As with each of Mitchell’s preceding records, xoa is a mix of the personal and the political. The former category includes the heartbreaking “Out of Pawn”, written as a letter from a Katrina survivor to an uncle who didn’t make it; “Come September”, the lament of a migrant picker jilted by her lover; and “Now You Know”, a quietly gorgeous fusion of lullaby and lovesong, among others. Each of these tracks elevates sentiments that could come across as maudlin, thanks to the craft with which Mitchell shapes her lyrics. Internal rhyme and alliteration are constant presences, but avoid calling undue attention to themselves; the sonic rhythms formed by these poetic devices are as natural as they are precise, drawing the listener in unawares. The same holds true for the record’s political half—the propagandic round “Why We Build the Wall” (written a decade before America’s current Trump problem), the barren climate-change panorama of “Any Way the Wind Blows”, the desperate hungry yowl of “Young Man in America”, rise above mere polemic due to the wit and intelligence with which their words are wrought.

Besides wordplay, another constant is emotion. Playful and joyful numbers are lifted up by the little-girl lilt of Mitchell’s tongue, which seems genuinely pleased to be here; desolate dirges are delivered with a grief that’s completely believable. Perhaps the most effective emotional moment on the record comes with its re-recorded version of “Your Fonder Heart”, originally present on Mitchell’s The Brightness. In its original version, the song is a warm, teasing greeting to someone who could be a friend come out to play or a lover with whom to wander under the stars, evoking memories of adolescent summer evenings in all their nostalgia-tinged glory. The xoa recording takes the exact same melody and lyrics and twists it into something entirely new—the arrangement, sparse and bare, summons a vision of a caffeine-insomniac awake at two in the morning with no idea how to sleep, and Mitchell’s voice is crushed and yearning. The juxtaposition of the two cuts is startling; it’s as if they’re bookends on a broken relationship, and in hindsight complete each other.

I don’t know that xoa is the album I would direct new listeners to as a starting point for Mitchell—a couple of the Hadestown cuts don’t make much sense out of context, and while there’s the cohesive sound of Mitchell alone on her guitar the subject matter is too varied to form a unified album. That said, it’s the record of hers I find myself listening to the most, and is easily in my top ten albums. In almost every step it takes it improves on material that was already incredibly good, intimate and perfectly constructed. It’s the latest in a long string of storytelling achievements from the current Queen of Folk Music.
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ANAÏS MITCHELL – Young Man in America (2012)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

Anais Mitchell is a modern folkie, in the same ilk as Bon Iver, and from the cover it’s clear what you’re getting into: the travels and travails of the Americana experience. The opening song sets the mood, with a lot of sparse guitar chords, screeching vioin, and oohs and aahs. Dorothy, we have found ourselves back in Kansas.

The second title track highlights the grievances I have with this record.  The instrumentation is professional, the production clear and pristine, the backing vocals soulful and atmospheric. But Miss Mitchell’s voice could not be more twee and precious, as though she is purposefully emulating the intonations of a twelve year old valley girl from southern California. It was one of those things I could just not move past, save for when she briefly stopped singing, and it hampered my enjoyment of the rest of the record. Something about the overly earnest and cherry sweet delivery made me wince whenever her voice squeaked into my ear canal. Which is a damn shame, because everything about it is easy to like. The second track begins as a simple folk ballad, before morphing into this New Orleans jazz-style tale of a young girl’s journey to adolescence. It’s both simultaneously moving and annoying to listen to. It does finish with a little bit of flourishing flute work, so that creates a nice high note at the end.

Third song, “Coming Down,” has a lot of teary eyed emotion to it, with Mitchell singing about the time she got very high and laughed so loud. I’m not sure what the message behind the song is, but it’s very pleasant with the breezy backing harmonies and crisp playing. It gets better on “Dyin Day,” a country/bluegrass piece with a slightly more energetic feel. I’m no longer dozing off but tapping my feet to the steady beat and groovy mandolin solo. Miss Mitchell seems to know the way to my roots rock heart. “Venus” is a pleasant little number about the singer discovering her womanhood and meeting the Roman goddess Venus. A nice electric guitar shuffle melds with jovial accordion solo, which really tickles my earbuds. How can one not feel happy when listening to such optimism?

The rest of the songs do sort of blend together after a while in this pudding of syrupy folksiness. The lyrics do begin to travel bit heavily into biblical, country-bumpkin, John Steinbeck-ish territory, as Mitchell wails about how her daddy “was a builder who swung his hammer brown and silver” or “how she sowed a party dress with a needle and thread.” It’s almost like she’s trying her darnest to convince me how pragmatic and salt of the earth she is. Because she’s from rural Vermont you see.

The track “Tailor” has a fair bit of annoying, and dare I say ostentatious lyrical utterings, where she repeats some seemingly innocuous phrases over and over, such as “In and out, In and out, In and out,” or “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” I don’t know Anais, I wish you’d get to the point and tell me though.  Apparently the album was designed to tell a story that relates to the recession of ’08, and Miss Mitchell seems to anoint herself as the voice for the zeitgeist of modern America’s alienated youth. But her themes never seem to expand beyond the superficial side of longing for love and motherhood, and her overall style is slightly too drippy to carry any weight; the track “Shepherd” sounds like something I’d hear on a commercial for Johnson’s baby powder. Supposedly it’s based on a short story her father, a college  professor and former novelist, wrote, which I appreciate for its honesty, but the self-indulgent audacity of it is rather cringe worthy too. Miss Mitchell, I understand you come from a long line of distinguished bards, but your poetry need some more bite for it to catch my interest.

“You Are Forgiven,” the second to last track, is slightly more rocking. Which means that the acoustic guitar is strummed a bit faster and we finally have some drums. There’s even a nice trumpet solo that adds some spice, but by now it’s too late to enlarge the horizons of this record beyond the obvious. It’s clear this was designed as one of those albums you listen to intently on a sultry evening, but there are billions of these homely folk albums that I would be willing to recommend in its place. It’s slightly less labored than your average Red House Painter’s record, but not as atmospheric as The Cowboy Junkies. It’s somewhere on the scale between enjoyable and pleasantly mediocre.