ARE 19TH CENTURY BALLADS "aulde newes"? Apparently not, considering how critics from the BBC to NPR are raving about Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer's forthcoming EP, Child Ballads, a revival of English and Scottish folk songs exhumed from the anthologies of Francis James Child. Mitchell and Hamer aren't the first to unearth these historical gems; prior artists to thumb through the 305-song Child files include Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention—and, more recently, the Decemberists and Fleet Foxes. Still, the pair does bring a special sensibility to the canon. With ornate acoustic finger-picking and perfectly blended harmonies, Mitchell and Hamer hearken closer to Americana vocal pairings like Simon and Garfunkel or the duo's admitted influence Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
Mitchell, who emerged as an Ani DiFranco/Righteous Babe Records protégée in the mid-2000s, has six previous recordings, including Hadestown, an hour-long rock opera of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, complete with cameos from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and DiFranco. Compared to Mitchell's other accomplishments, Child Ballads seems like the musical equivalent of a ballerina's floor stretch: a lull that keeps Mitchell's muscles active between big leaps.
Hamer, who hails from the New York Celtic music scene, began accompanying Mitchell on tour in 2009, when they quickly discovered their mutual affinity for Child's collection. According to Mitchell, they picked up a dog-eared copy of the works in a Vermont bookstore and took turns reading and singing to each other in the car while the other drove. After trying and then scrapping full-band instrumentation, Mitchell and Hamer eventually opted for a stripped-down tandem recording that leaves plenty of space to lilt and breathe, dramatically accentuating the ballads' long, complex storylines.
And what stories they are—lurid with lusty rendezvous, unplanned pregnancies, precarious voyages, and untimely deaths. A servant knocks up the king's daughter while the king is detained in a Spanish prison. A mother of six pleads in vain with a magistrate to spare her husband's life. A woman withstands her lover's werewolf-ish transformation into three different animals before taming him into husband material.
Much like a Christmas cover album, this record trades on the artists' ability to curate and personalize a preexisting body of work, rather than generate it from scratch. Fortunately, Mitchell and Hamer do these seven songs a goodly service.