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Friday, September 1, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: The Song They Sang... When Rome Fell


1) The Calling; 2) Parking Lot Nudie Bar; 3) Make It Up; 4) Hymn For The Exiled; 5) Work Makes Free; 6) Deliberately; 7) The Routine; 8) Orleanna; 9) The Song They Sang When Rome Fell; 10) Hold This.

Although there is no record label or formal distribution process associated with Anaïs Mitchell's first song cycle, and although one of its tracks later turned into the title track for a properly dis­tributed album, The Song They Sang still counts as her first LP in all known discographies. It was recorded, allegedly, in a single afternoon somewhere in Austin, Texas, but I suppose a pro­fessional studio was still involved, because the sound quality is impeccable — Mitchell's acoustic guitar and voice are captured with all the overtones intact and no whistles, car motors, or barking dogs outside the bedroom window. More importantly, despite the sparse production, it does not have the feel of a raw collection of demos — it is a fairly mature artistic statement for a 21-year old that she'd have no reason to feel ashamed of even ten years later, when Hadestown put her on the map properly.

Not that the 21-year old is writing songs that would make anybody stop dead in their tracks and wonder if it truly runs in the family... because she must be Joni's daughter, right? (Spoiler: if she really were, she'd probably get famous far earlier than Hadestown). At this point, at least, her songs are more like tasteful guitar accompaniments for her poetry, although she certainly knows far more than three chords, drawing inspiration from folk, country, and light jazz wherever pos­sible. She is not even completely above the old art of the verse/chorus structure; however, this is still lightly sung poetry, and has to be taken as such, or else you will simply get frustrated looking for hooks that aren't even supposed to be there.

Most of that poetry is about relationships, and, fortunately, not so much about break-ups (the usual favorite topic for singer-songwriters of both sexes) as about subtler aspects: one of the key tracks (at least, in terms of lyrics) is ʽThe Routineʼ, where she complains about the inevitable wearing-down of romantic life: "And I’m praying to the ceiling up above your head / Not to let our love turn into this routine". Much of the album gives the same feeling — either complaining about the boring aspects of life, or trying to find its meaning in little things and small actions, like "dance to Leonard Cohen in the kitchen" (not such a bad idea). An occasional statement of per­sonal creed can also be found, such as "But what if when we’re born / They lock the gate and toss the key / Behind the sign that says / Work Makes Free / And all I can say / Is that I pray that is not me" (if you are 21 and you hate work, especially «for The Man», you will certainly empathize here); and towards the end of the album, she begins to briefly peek outside her own psyche, with a not half-bad verbal portrait of the prisoner of the house of the rising sun (ʽOrleannaʼ) and at least one big socio-political statement (the title track that seems to profess the coming apocalypse for American civilization, possibly written in the wake of 9/11 or something).

Arguably, her most attractive quality at this point is her voice, which she is not afraid of demon­strating naked and strong at the beginning of the opening track ("I am calling you out", sung in the manner of a gospel belter, though with considerably less strength than your average gospel belter). She has a decent range, resorting to falsetto when necessary, but she never goes for any artificial affectations of the Kate Bush / Tori Amos / Joanna Newsom varieties, which naturally makes it less distinct, but also less prone to becoming annoying over time; nor does she try to generate any excessive tenderness, melancholy, anger, or guru-like psychological depth (the latter quality being such a nasty turn-off for so many indie artists who like to rent out their stuff to so many indie movie soundtracks). Thus, even when she delivers a conclusive chorus that goes "The hardest is happening right this minute / When we're trying to just be where we are and / Be here together", she does not sing it with the air of delivering some monumental truth or discovery, she just tells it like it is, and that is kind of... seductive.

Still, to be fair, there is not that much going on at this point. As a quickly tossed-off collection of well-recited expressionist poetry, The Song They Sang is not bad; as an introduction to Anaïs Mitchell, the intellectual-sentimental human being, it's pretty good; as an album of memorable musical moments, it is practically non-existent, so I cannot honestly recommend it to anybody who is used to rating singer-songwriters based on something above pure charisma and verbal skills. That said, I cannot thumb-down it, either, because none of these songs stir up any actively negative reactions — and that is already a big plus for a record such as this, where the ego of the performer is breathing directly down your neck, and more often than not, has a pretty foul and suffocating stench around it. Mitchell's ego is on a nice diet in comparison.

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