Interpreters of roots music, particularly that of Irish, British or Anglo-American origin, tend to fall into one of two camps. There are what I would call the moderate modernisers, artists who tend to stick to fairly well-known versions of familiar traditional songs but imbue them with a musical sensibility that is closer to pop than to folk. This kind of music can be great – particularly if it is done with enough subtlety or enough energy – but it can also sometimes be grating. The second camp is concerned with an altogether different kind of modernisation, an experimental or avant-garde kind or DIY kind; acts that play fast and loose with the rules but are paradoxically more in tune with the mutable nature of their source material.
It is refreshing and increasingly rare to find artists who sit happily between these two poles; that is, artists willing to give space to traditional songs without the embellishment of poppy production or lysergic nu-folk tics. But that is just what Anna and Elizabeth do. This much is evident from Long Time Travelin’, the short opening track from their self-titled second album. Delivered a capella, it introduces us in the most immediate way possible to the wonderful voice of Virginia native Elizabeth LaPrelle and to the simple but crucial harmonies of Anna Roberts-Gevalt. The sound is pure Appalachian mountain music, so completely in tune with its roots that, were it not for the clarity, you’d think you were listening to a long-lost, century-old recording.
The Appalachian sound is present throughout the album in a few different guises and with a few tweaks here and there. Little Black Train‘s humour and twinkle owes something to the Carter Family’s version, but also something to Woody Guthrie’s. Roberts-Gevalt’s guitar brings a hint of the blues to proceedings. The gospel song Poor Pilgrim Of Sorrow‘s guitar, on the other hand, conjures up a state of melancholy by its dark, simple, almost minimalist approach, similar to Leonard Cohen’s earliest and folkiest recordings, or Bill Callahan.
We are also treated to a lively rendering of Lovin’ Babe which retains the energetic feel of Uncle Dave Macon’s definitive version, but with the addition of guitar to accompany the banjo and of course those harmonies. But more remarkable still are the two longest songs on the album. Orfeo retains its old Scottish ballad form but sets it against a chilling drone of uilleann pipes punctuated by occasional flourishes and topped off with Roberts-Gevalt’s fiddle. The cumulative effect is simply astonishing: at once wild and claustrophobic. The album’s other lengthy ballad is a menacing update of the already spine-tingling Greenwood Sidey, a grisly tale well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a hushed rendition, at times almost spoken rather than sung, but a single, percussively plucked guitar note which subsides at the song’s conclusion like a faltering heartbeat makes for a strange and atmospheric piece.
These two longer songs form the album’s impressive double spine. They are also the closest the duo come to experimentalism. But they are by no means the only highlights. There is also Father Neptune, a fairly straight cover of a song by the enigmatic Connie Converse that goes to prove what an enviably gifted songwriter she was. And then there is Goin’ Across The Mountain, a song popularised by Pete Seeger, which showcases the vocal talents of both performers, or Don’t Want To Die In The Storm, another a capella offering which sounds like an African-American spiritual but is given the ‘high and lonesome’ treatment here.
There are nifty banjo tunes (the spot-on bluegrass of Troubles), short but dramatic devotional songs (Grace Of God) and covers of bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe (Voice From On High) and Hazel Dickens (the sweet, sad Won’t You Come And Sing For Me). For a record steeped so long in the history of mountain music, Anna And Elizabeth is unexpectedly and endlessly varied. The singing is never less than beautiful, the playing often inspired and the creative tangents that are explored are always engaging – which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that this is an act whose live shows incorporate ballads whose stories are told with hand-made puppets. This is a rare album that is as intimate as it is ambitious and as idiosyncratic as it is reverential.
Review by: Thomas Blake
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