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Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads (Wilderland Records)

Star rating: 

There's only one apparent rule when tackling traditional songs and that's do anything you want with them as long as you keep the essentials of the story intact. We could wax lyrical all day and half of the night about the distinctive and original voice of Anaïs Mitchell and just how well it fits together with her sparring partner's voice here, Jefferson Hamer. Then we could go on about the dove-tailed acoustic guitar techniques and whose style they more closely resemble, but we won't; they're just a given when it comes to these two musicians. What should be looked at closely on this album are the seven ballads represented, for that's what CHILD BALLADS is all about, the stories. Sometimes we trawl through entire novels in order to be suitably fulfilled by a good story, other times we fill a bucket with popcorn and watch stories in widescreen 3D. This is all well and good, but sometimes a ballad can have all the necessary ingredients to send those shivers, bring on the night terrors, make us blubber like babies or just simply enthral us. Even better when the storytellers have such an engaging way of telling them to us and on this album we get that throughout.  

We should point out from the start that these seven ballads have little to do with children, but are instead selected from the 305 English and Scottish songs collected by American folklorist Francis James Child in the nineteenth century. The ballads are for the most part very well known, such as Sir Patrick Spens, Willy o Winsbury and Tam Lin, each represented by their own specific number, 58, 100 and 39 respectively in the case of these three. What is refreshing is the gentle manner in which these songs are performed, with each one treated to a simple arrangement featuring two guitars played intuitively by both Mitchell and Hamer, with the occasional fiddle courtesy of Brittany Haas, some well-placed accordion and pump organ from Tim Lauer and finally some occasional bass provided by Viktor Krauss, Alison's big bro. Despite the potential incompatibility between the delightfully breezy vocals and the bleak subject matter, it works tremendously well, with calmness replacing passion, subtlety replacing histrionics. 

In a period of time when folk music is back to being cool and sexy, with Mumford and Sons being recognised by the Brits as our best band of 2013 and with seemingly more young people attending folk music festivals, there has been a tendency to point young people in the general direction of Robin Hood's Bay for an understanding of what songs like these are all about. With records like CHILD BALLADS we find we need look no further. The ballads are alive and kicking in 2013 and in very good hands.
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky