Folk music is a lot more like golf than you might think, were you ever to think this kind of thing. The more muscle you put into it, the more erratic your game becomes. You can’t force it. You need to set your grip, and your stance, and not mess with them. Keep your head down. Keep things economical; let the club do the work. You’re the fulcrum of a pendulum, not a hammer to a nail. There’s a difference, and it’s a big one. Good golfers know that.
Apparently, good musicians know that too. It’s that kind of trust and economy that really underlies this simply brilliant album from Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. There is no muscle here. Instead, they find their grip on the song, give it the support that it needs from them, and then they trust the song to do the work. The darkness in songs like “Little Black Train” is there without us needing to underline it; it’s darker if we don’t.
That might sound simple, but it’s not. Economy can be terrifying. Playing a song that has only an A-part—no identifiable chorus, no bridge, not even a little turnaround in sight—brings its own unique challenges. There’s just very little to hold on to, and that’s where the terror comes in, one that makes lesser musicians start running for ornaments, flash, and complexity. It’s just easier to get an ovation with “Orange Blossom Special” than it is ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and that’s because monotony can feel like an ever-present risk.
But it’s that kind of negotiation, and the unflagging trust in the songs, that makes Anna and Elizabeth so breathtaking and so unique. “Orfeo” begins with a single voice over a drone of the uilleann pipes, and when the vocal part ends, there is a long drone before the pipes take up the melody. Stark as stark can be. Yet the result is mesmerizing. That drone in the middle is like a pause in conversation, one that many people would be compelled to fill, though here it is fearlessly left to stand alone. And it’s utterly powerful.
“Everything serves the voice and the story,” says Anna. “We try to be direct storytellers—to express these songs in a way that people of today can feel connected to. We aren’t trying to transport people to the past—rather we are trying to bring the past back into the room, bring history into our understanding of the present.”
There isn’t a note amiss here, and the arrangements are deceptively complex, as with the harmony entries and exits in “Father Neptune.” Yet, in a time when some bands present old-time music as camp, Anna and Elizabeth choose to bring forth the dignity in these songs, and it’s absolutely welcome. Like the Carter Family mounting the stage in their Sunday best, this album grants a respect to the harmonies, the tones, the instruments, the depth, and the ideas that drive these songs. “Voice from on High” is slower, more reverent here than most people would play it, as is “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.” The result is something akin to hearing the songs for the first time. They bring the ideas forward, and with it the humanity behind them.
There are many comparisons to be made to another groundbreaking recording, Hazel and Alice, and I suspect some of them are intentional. Alice Gerrard sings on this recording, though her inclusion feels less like a cameo and more like a necessity. To find her here is as about as remarkable as finding her in her own living room.
If there is one roots album that will be selling better twenty years from now that it is right now, this is it. Albums like this don’t come along every day, or every year, or maybe even every decade. They are albums that are transformative, and that become a touchstone that later recordings invariably refer back to. This one is one of those.