Ah, ‘the difficult third album’. We all know how that story’s supposed to go, right? It’s taken Anna & Elizabeth six years (and the 550 miles between Cedar Springs, Virginia and New York City) to get here, but this sounds like the place they’ve been headed toward the whole time.
For this album (their first for the venerable Smithsonian Folkways label) the dynamic duo have enlisted the services of Dirty Three drummer Jim White and pedal steel voyager Susan Alcorn (whose occasional collaborators include fellow travellers of the musical outerverse like Pauline Oliveros, Eugene Chadbourne and Mike Cooper) along with some cunningly-deployed brass, woodwinds and synthesisers.
Anna’s enthusiastic integration into New York’s experimental and improvised music community has clearly been a liberating experience. Always a highly accomplished musician, here she and co-producer Benjamin Lazar Davis subtly wreathe the songs in lovingly-crafted and surprising soundscapes. Elizabeth’s still that extraordinary traditional singer who first bedazzled us with Rain And Snow back in 2004, but her willingness to explore these old song texts within a new, contemporary context has resulted in performances in which she sounds somehow even more authentically connected to her material. This time it’s personal.
Always scrupulous collectors and researchers (they spent a whole year in collecting these songs) Anna & Elizabeth credit both their source singers and and their sonic influences as equally important. The latter category includes the likes of Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and Meredith Monk. (Interestingly, Monk is also acknowledged by English singer composer Kerry Andrew on the similarly-configured and contemporaneous You Are Wolf album Keld – also reviewed in this issue).
This is an album of traditional songs on which each track offers the listener something uniquely satisfying – from Black Eyed Susan’s minimalism to Ripest Of Apples’ more conventional rock structure and from Irish Patriot’s jazz saxophone textures to Virginia Rambler’s fractured drumming. The bowed drones behind Farewell To Erin are reminiscent of Lankum (another acknowledged influence) while Woman Is Walking is just a lovely high and lonesome thing. By The Shore is a piece of storytelling with overlapping spoken word and sung passages that is strange, hypnotic and beautiful.
It turns out this isn’t ‘the difficult third album’ at all. It’s a straight-up masterpiece.