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Friday, October 13, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Xoa


1) Any Way The Wind Blows; 2) Out Of Pawn; 3) Your Fonder Heart; 4) Why We Build The Wall; 5) Now You Know; 6) If It's True; 7) Namesake; 8) Young Man In America; 9) Two Kids; 10) The Pursewarden Affair; 11) His Kiss, The Riot; 12) Come September; 13) You Are Forgiven; 14) Our Lady Of The Underground; 15) Cosmic American.

This is not much of an album, really: mostly re-recorded versions of songs from all across Mit­chell's back catalog, plus exactly three new tunes, none of them promising any new directions or revelations. Anaïs herself stated that this one was strictly for the fans, and this was confirmed by the limited status of the release — although these days such things get confusing, since in the digital / streaming age the line between «limited» and «full-scale» (or whatever) release is getting increasingly blurred. Good excuse for a husband-beater snapshot, though.

The new songs consist of good poetry and dull melodies: ʽThe Pursewarden Affairʼ must have been written specifically to get potential readers interested in the works of Laurence Durell, but even though I admit to having never read a single line from The Alexandria Quartet (I am not proud of this, but am not exactly losing sleep, either), this does not stop me from tipping my hat to lines like "Percy Pursewarden, open up your door / I haven't come to break your cadence or to mix your metaphor". And ʽAny Way The Wind Blowsʼ makes a nice addition to the list of songs by that name, from Zappa to J. J. Cale, being probably the first one to depict a chaotic-apocalyp­tic vision based on that idiom. However, neither of the two has the kind of impact that Mitchell's best musical stuff does, like ʽYoung Man In Americaʼ, which cuts deep and sharp even in this stripped-down variation.

And speaking of stripped down, I have no idea what exactly these new versions of ʽOut Of Pawnʼ or ʽNamesakeʼ bring to the table, but at least it makes sense that four of these re-recordings come from Hadestown, giving Anaïs a chance to present the songs according to her personal vision rather than in the context of a collectively engineered musical project. Personally, I'm all too happy to hear ʽIf It's Trueʼ without Justin Vernon, and I think that, although the rowdy ʽOur Lady Of The Undergroundʼ was done with more balls by Ani DiFranco (because, from a purely feminist standpoint, Ani DiFranco simply has more balls than Anaïs Mitchell, for better or for worse, you decide), anyway, I am partial to this subtler, more vulnerable version. On the other hand, ʽWhy We Build The Wallʼ, with Greg Brown's «earthwall» voice, certainly worked better on the original version — although I understand the desire to reiterate how much the message of the song actually means to the songwriter in person.

In terms of rarities, there's ʽCome Septemberʼ, a track originally released on the 2008 EP Country, a collaboration between Mitchell and fellow folk-writer Rachel Ries: pleasantly moody and melancholic as usual, but nothing to make me rush out and hunt for that lost EP. And in general, Xoa produces a strange impression: it has all the makings of an «unplugged» album — mostly just Anaïs and her acoustic guitar, playing fresh and depply personal variations — but considering that Anaïs Mitchell has almost always been an «unplugged» artist, it would make more sense if she played them all as polkas, or at least as Nickelback tributes or something. And she is not even all that old now, to get proper justification for looking back over her shoulder on the confessions of her youth and replaying them as per the wisdom accumulated in those grey hairs and facial wrinkles. In other words, you have to really be a fan to thank her for this, instead of harboring the nasty suspicion that, perhaps, she simply stumbled upon writer's block... which, by the way, seems to be ongoing at the time that I am writing this: 2016-2017 saw her get all too busy with the production of Hadestown as an off-Broadway musical, and altogether we have not heard a proper new Anaïs Mitchell album since Young Man In America. Then again, there's so many people in the world who do release new music even though they are suffering from even worse attacks of writer's block that the decision to release a bunch of re-recordings might count as a noble example of artistic honesty these days.

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