ANNA & ELIZABETH
2015 - Free Dirt Records
Anna and Elizabeth are two hugely talented young women who are totally absorbed by the music they love and yet if this extraordinary album is anything to go by, they are also at the peak of understatement, allowing any histrionics to be portrayed by the lyrics rather than any 'Diva' antics! Mind you, these old songs are not suited to Diva's anyway; instead they are suited to highly talented musicians and singers for whom the song is everything. Cue Anna and Elizabeth!
The duo consists of multi-instrumentalist and singer Anna Roberts-Gevalt and acclaimed Appalachian ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle who between them manage to give what is probably the most emotive reading of these sixteen traditional songs since their inception, such is the quality they offer.
The instrumentation on this beautiful edgy album is as sparse as it could possibly be and sometimes nonexistent, allowing the two vocalists to highlight the lyrical content and yet add a little colour, just enough to enrich the sense of drama contained within these sixteen songs. The depth of feeling and their enthusiasm for their subject becomes palpable from first listen to this extraordinary recording that will in all probability further down the line, be classed as a historical document. It will certainly be an easy one to read thanks to the clarity and atmosphere they create on each of these beautiful performances that are always haunting and often quite ethereal.
There are so many talented people around who are resurrecting the 'old music' and performing it in myriad ways, usually with great authority, respect for the tradition and a huge amount of feeling. Many of them have made music I love and as a result have written rave reviews about, but few come close to these incredible performances. These two women don't just search out and play the old songs, they inhabit them! Their way of life entails discovering almost forgotten old songs from elderly people who remember them from their youth, but they also go into schools and play the songs, explaining where they come from. Additionally they work in radio in their area and put on 'crankies' and shadow puppet shows to accompany the music. Just have a look at their website for a fuller explanation of what they are about, but to say they are dedicated to their work is a massive understatement!
The album starts with Long Time Travelin,' a completely unaccompanied short song that exhibits the strength and charm of two female voices in perfect harmony musically and in terms of the depth of feeling. Little Black Train is just acoustic guitar and a single lead vocal that projects the heartrending tragedy of the story without any melodramatic overload of passion, with the harmonies on the chorus adding an eerie edge to a powerful old tale. Soldier and the Lady is a gorgeous duet on which their harmonies perfectly complement this old tale, again with just acoustic guitar as sole support. The two voices blend beautifully, but what adds a tremendous sense of drama is that the two voices can be heard, almost in isolation so that it is easy to tell the difference between the two women. On Orfeo my lack of knowledge of 'pipes' is highlighted! It is a spooky tale that has a density that gives a perfect evocation of a song being sung on a front porch of the Appalachians or even an English farming village of many generations ago. There is just a single vocal and Uillean or Northumbrian pipes(?) adding a drone and then eventually an atmospheric melody. And so the album progresses, from one tremendous performance to another and yet within these old songs there is a huge diversity that despite the sparseness never threatens monotony, in fact if anything, as the listener gets into the songs it becomes more gripping. There is a high lonesome duet in Goin' Across The Mountain, with banjo and guitar creating an atmosphere in which you can almost sense that you are in the high Appalachians with a mist slowly lifting to reveal a spectacular view. As with virtually every song on the album there is a feeling of calmness and reflection that in some ways helps you understand why it is important to preserve these old songs. Final mention goes to Greenwood Sidey, an intensely dramatic tale that builds in suspense with the bass strings of the guitar deepening the darkness. It is a strange otherworldly tale, with the lead vocal and harmonies showing a flatness and lack of passion that makes things even darker and with the monotonous guitar tones that change occasionally adding further depth to the atmosphere. These highlights were picked totally at random, the quality of every track on the album being such that each deserved as much praise as the next.
The beauty of this music just washes over the listener in a way that very few other albums are able to. It is sparse, the vocals and harmonies are just about peerless, the arrangements on the face of it appear to be simple but credit this pair for knowing that only simplicity would really serve these songs as they needed to be served. The songwriters, now lost in the deep mists of time, would certainly have had no more instrumentation than is on this album, and undoubtedly could not have matched the beauty contained on this piece of plastic. It seems almost an insult to put these great performances on a plastic disc, but who knows maybe the warm vinyl which the album deserves will follow if enough people purchase this beautiful recording. If you don't buy a copy it really is your loss