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Anais Mitchell: Young Man in America
You can almost guarantee that any musician hailing from a landscape filled with towering trees and sprawling mountains will incorporate that beauty into their sound. The United State’s Appalachian range is home to many folk musicians from decades back until present day that do just that.
From Vermont, Anais Mitchell is a young, vibrant lady who no doubt has spent many-a-night in a vast, open field somewhere. Mitchell is a storyteller accompanied by a naturally gritty tone and simple strum of the guitar that has ‘folk’ written all over it.
With a few EP’s behind her, Mitchell’s first full-length album Hadestown was released in 2010 - the concept weaving mythology into a grander portrayal of life and love. The album functions as a folk opera of sorts which includes theatric vocals and guest appearances by Tom Waits and Ani DeFranco; a quirky, yet beautiful little party in and of itself.
After knowing Anais based on Hadestown alone though, we couldn’t paint a picture of what her forthcoming music would sound like. Released just a few months ago, Young Man in America is missing the fun factor of Hadestown but brings with it a stripped-down Anais Mitchell.
Just as honest and emotive as before, Mitchell taps into the consciousness of modern-day America with a mystical undertone and a more serious approach. Be prepared for eleven tracks filled with pensiveness and a decent dash of sadness.
The title track isn’t subtle about it either: ‘There’s a hollow in my bones/ makin’ me cry and carry on’ – thankfully however, a mandolin and tambourine balance out the depressive lyrics; making everything right in the world.
The following track ‘Coming Down’ is a sombre and exquisite piano number with harmonies that follow suit.
‘Venus’ takes flight into the ether for a lovely two minutes and 22 seconds. Mitchell displays her cosmic sensibilities with this upbeat, harmonica-laden tune and fair warning: awfully catchy melody. Watch out.
‘Ships’ is the closing track on the album and it takes us through a story of love and leaving - being instrumentally rich and ghostly in its vocals.
Casting aside any exaggeration, Young Man in America is not completely soaking in sorrow, however it does quite poignantly describe the social condition that many of us come to face. Isn’t that what folk music has always done, though?
Just ask Guns ‘n Roses’ Axl Rose or try and listen to any recent Korn album without cringing. Many bands quit (R.E.M., Sonic Youth), others tone down their sound (Metallica) and some keep regurgitating what they’ve been doing for decades (The Rolling Stones).
Kim Thayil’s guitar traditionally wails around on the dissonant side of the spectrum and singer Chris Cornell still deals out high-pitched screeches like a rock version of Celine Dion – but they have audibly matured. And considering that the grunge kids of two decades ago have aged with them, many will appreciate this more grown-up, adult sound.
After 52 minutes, one question remains: now that Soundgarden seems to have arrived at their definitive sound, will they become one of those established bands that don’t evolve anymore? Like fellow Seattle-ites Pearl Jam, or grandfathers of rock Aerosmith, for example. Or will they continue to develop their sound, like Muse or Radiohead?
Having impressed the
un-impressible Kanye West enough to lend his vocals to last
year’s My Beautiful Dark
more expectant gazes turned to Justin Vernon and American folk band Bon Iver.
The anticipation for their self-titled second album was already high after 2008's album For Emma, Forever Ago and 2009’s EP Blood Bank. The two releases, Vernon’s unique high-pitched vocals, and the group's no-frills image conquered an adoring cult following. It’s been a big month for folk music, with Fleet Foxes also releasing a much-anticipated second album.
As you'd expect, soft and strained guitars lead the sound, and Bon Iver opens with ‘Perth’; a sombre inauguration to the album that was written back in 2008 during Vernon’s stay with a friend of Heath Ledger’s after the actor’s death. The end of the song introduces the bands’ recurring use of synthesisers to accompany the very raw and earthy folk sound. ‘Minnesota, WI’ continues in a similar but more upbeat vein.
Vernon uses his natural, much deeper speaking voice in ‘Hinnom, TX’; a contrast that stands out against his usually high-pitched vocals and the more electronically reliant sound of the song, which still retains the moody charm that underwrites the album.
Unfortunately, that moodiness
starts to grate away at the listener’s resolve, and the wonderful instrumentalism
isn’t enough. This is not an easy album to listen to; the instrumentals and the
vocals are very separate, and Vernon often secedes as if he’s riffing. First single ‘Calgary’ is a welcome change of
tempo then, without completely differentiating itself from the rest of the album. It was the obvious choice as the album's first single, and it makes for the most accessible listen.
The album is summed up best by ‘Lisbon, OH’; a brief composition of quaint music; the type that you’d stare into space to. Adopting the names of cities and towns holds meaning for Vernon, but for listeners it adds to the melancholy image of an angst-ridden travelling musician, making every new unfamiliar city a temporary home.
No-frills they may be, but there’s a delicate and intricate musical acuteness behind Bon Iver's grizzly features. This is an album in which each song has been treated as the most important, and so each one sounds incredibly refined. It doesn’t feel instinctive, but rather that every note is perfectly thought out, which makes it even more impressive when it bears on you. Bon Iver requires a lot of concentration, more than some will be prepared to give; but it pays off.