15 December 2010

2010 Albums: Anais Mitchell, Antony and the Johnsons

Day 3, two more reviews!

Anais Mitchell
Released March 9, 2010 (Righteous Babe)

Short Notes: "Quirky" Vermont singer/songwriter signs to Ani's label, recruits major guests (Bon Iver), gets Greek.

So, she's calling this a "folk opera," the story of Orpheus and Euridyce set in Depression-era America. The first time I heard this, I had no idea what to make of it (although thanks to ye olde liberal arts education, I did "get it"). The arrangements (done mostly by her collaborator Michael Chorney) are lush and interesting, and the vocal guests (especially Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and folkie Greg Brown) are spectacular. The first time through, it seemed like a novelty at best, and a mishmash of cutesy, folky over-reaching at worst. But subsequent listenings have been rewarding--this record's a grower. And despite my wife's judgement ("It's boring. Turn it off."), I find the eclecticism of it all endearing. Frankly, the weakest part of the album is Mitchell's own voice, which is a bit high, nasally, and shrill, like a less pleasant Nellie McKay. But there's little enough of that, and the album's ambitious vision is both fully realized and successful. Highly recommended.

(Note that this version of "Why We Build The Wall" is not the album version.)

I knew nothing about this album before putting it on except its impressive roster of guest musicians. This may have been an asset: part of the fun was trying to figure out what the hell was going on -- the album's internal logic. But it's also a liability: I spent my time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. It's a concept album and sounds like it, which isn't necessarily a good thing given the frequency of style shifts. Still, the individual tracks do work, more or less, especially those closer to the gothic country of Jim White ("Way Down Hadestown") or the "noir film soundtrack" that reminds me of Black Heart Procession's Amore del Tropico ("Why We Build The Wall"). I've listened to this a couple of times and I'm still not ultimately sure what to think; like people that you just can't get a read on, it’s also intriguing.

Antony & the Johnsons
Released October 12, 2010 (Secretly Canadian)

Short notes: Consistently good, but not a step forward, either.

Antony's had a great run since 2005, when I Am a Bird Now brought his unique talent to wider exposure. Swanlights, technically his fourth record (but the third since '05) is a worthy addition to the catalogue. While the sonic palette on an Antony record is, at this point, relatively predictable, that doesn't subtract from the emotional punch or the evident craftsmanship. On this record more that past alums, I hear Antony using his voice to play with space--repeating words, ever adding a bit of scat singing on "I'm in Love," my favorite track. But despite the high praise, this record isn't quite at the level of his best work, either. If you don't know him, better to start with last year's The Crying Light, which was slightly more consistent with the quality of the writing, or his exceptional turn as vocalist on 2008's Hercules and Love Affair record, which gave him a rather broader sonic canvas than his own records. Recommended, especially if you're already a fan.

Any discussion of the best vocalists in current music has to begin with Antony Hegarty -- in my mind, this argument is QED'd by the 1-2 of Hercules and Love Affair's fabulous dance track "Blind" and Antony's own absolutely devastating "Hope There's Someone" (from 2005's I Am A Bird Now). The previous two albums pulled off the (surprisingly difficult) trick of being emotionally resonant despite being thematically dissimilar to my own life, i.e. it's easy for me to get behind songs about alcoholics, unrequited love, and the ennui of modern life, but self-gender image is something entirely different. (I wish to note, though, that even pointing that out does a disservice to his ability to tap into the universal.) Which is a long way of saying that, this album? Not as much. It's still good, but lacks the -- I don't know... cathartic gravitas? maybe? -- of the previous works. It's still there at times (the title track, the first single "Thank You For Your Love") but the missing emotional cohesion between tracks gives just enough room to pull the blanket of ironic detachment over your head.

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