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Friday, September 8, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Hymns For The Exiled


1) Before The Eyes Of Storytelling Girls; 2) 1984; 3) Cosmic American; 4) The Belly And The Beast; 5) Orion; 6) Mockingbird; 7) I Wear Your Dress; 8) Quecreek Flood; 9) A Hymn For The Exiled; 10) Two Kids; 11) One Good Thing.

By the very first line of this album ("I could tell you stories like the government tells lies" — kind of an OUCH! here, right?), you can tell that things are going to get even more serious than they were on the day that Rome fell. Although, form-wise, not a lot has happened, and what we hear is still mostly just the voice and the acoustic guitar, Mitchell has begun to move closer to a true «song» format instead of that of a musically accompanied poetic rant; and her lyrical themes have now expanded far beyond the «brainy young girl in a man's, man's, man's world» subject, even if that subject itself can never lose its relevancy. In terms of arrangements, she occasionally throws on an extra violin or viola line (courtesy of Caleb Elder), or adds a second guitar or bass (courtesy of her producer Michael Chorney), but there is still a distinct «alone in the bedroom» feel to most of the songs, although only one of them, the album closing pessimistic lament ʽOne Good Thingʼ, has been truly produced lo-fi bedroom style, as one final homage to her indie brothers and sisters, or, perhaps, to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

The album was released on the small American label of Waterbug Records which, according to the blurb on its website, positions itself as "an innovative, ear-to-the-ground artists' cooperative label specializing in great songwriters and traditional folk musicians who do original research"; except for Mitchell, I confess to never having heard of even one other artist from that label, but then, they couldn't very well advertise themselves as a label "specializing in mediocre song­writers and traditional folk musicians who pretend to do original research", right? Anyway, I would not truly call Mitchell a "great songwriter" (and she is most definitely not a traditional folk musician, either), based exclusively on Hymns For The Exiled. But at least by that time she was seriously trying to become a good songwriter, and she almost succeeded at that.

Almost, because only a superhero can write acoustic folk-based songs in the 21st century that would not sound, at best, like pleasant variations on well-trodden paths. Even if I cannot name them precisely, I am pretty sure that I have heard all of her chord sequences before — from Joni Mitchell to Clannad to, oh, I dunno, Loreena McKennitt, it's all been done, there's absolutely nothing to discuss. And although she was influenced enough by Leonard Cohen to namedrop him expressly on the previous record, she cannot, or does not wish to follow Cohen's sly routine of dropping a melodic earworm in each of his choruses, so that the lyrical wisdom of his verses gets dragged into your head on the alluring wings of the refrain. Still worse, she does not quite have the voice to impart that wisdom — the Joanna Newsom-lite pitch is good enough to show her as an actual human (rather than Newsom's pixie-brat act), but not good enough to woo me into awed submission, no matter how sharp the words are.

And the words are getting sharper as the lady gets political: ʽ1984ʼ is self-evident, and a good chunk of the other songs mentions the Iraq War directly or hints at it without much concealment (for instance, there is a bit of Arabic poetry, with fairly bad pronunciation but plenty of exube­rance, recited in the middle of ʽTwo Kidsʼ). But, truth be told, this is far from the worst batch of anti-war poetry ever written — ʽBefore The Eyes Of Storytelling Girlsʼ, drawing on Mitchell's own experience of living in the Middle East, is a skilled indictment of ignorance and deception that goes beyond the usual clichés, and I only wish the song made more of an impression on me through means other than just words. "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1984" is a good find, too. Oh, and the Iraq War is not the only thing on her mind — we also care about the ecology and the workers' rights (ʽQuecreek Floodʼ, about a mining incident in 2002), about our own artistic freedom (ʽMockingbirdʼ), and about nameless dead drummers (ʽOrionʼ — I do not know about any actual drummers from Austin found dead in their apartments, and neither do you, probably, but here's to all the dead drummers out there; also, since she does namedrop both Gram Parsons and Buddy Holly, this is a sort of an "only the good die young" statement here, really).

It's all nice, and moderately touching, but I will not join in the choir of excited reviews: this is an intelligent artistic statement, but not a magical one. It is a good thing that Anaïs kept on develo­ping, because settling into this formula — a perfectly easy thing to do, especially when you get lightly patted on the shoulder by critics — would simply result in a series of progressively more bland neo-folk records with Important Progressive Messages. It gets better, though.

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