Anais Mitchell really has nothing left to prove with her deeply imaginative songwriting. In recent years her records have dominated the end of year lists with 2010's "Hadestown' in particular being close to the greatest record of that year. On this new release "Xoa" she has recorded the album that many have long desired, namely a stripped back production based largely around her voice and a acoustic guitar. Granted it is not totally original, re-visiting a number of songs from "Hadestown" and "Young Men in America", but it allows us to listen to Mitchell and her songwriting in the raw and a hugely enjoyable experience follows.
There are fifteen songs on this album some of then real beauties like the new versions of the gorgeous regretful love ballad 'If its true" and the superb "Namesake". Seek them out please. The vocals of Mitchell are possibly less quirky in these settings than on previous outings although for this reviewer these solo settings seems to let her breath as a singer. As for the reworks of previous songs "Young Man in America" works equally well as a bare boned ballad as it does as the more bluesy title track on the 2012 album. Further "His kiss the riot" from Hadestown really does benefit from a much simpler crystal arrangement than Greg Brown's dramatic accordion epic. But other versions do not quite hit the mark. "Our Lady of the Underground" which was beautifully sung with funky confidence by Ani DiFranco on "Hadestown" fares less well stripped of its jazzy intonations and there can be no alternative to Greg Brown's brilliant version of "Why we build the Wall". It is not that Mitchell's versions are not worthy, its just that she has already recorded the definitive versions albeit sung by other artists. There is nonetheless plenty of music here to fully compensate. The stunning opener "Anyway the Wind Blows" is underpinned by a Autumnal melancholy that tugs at the emotions, while the superbly constructed "Out of Pawn" is a story of "Uncle Louie" who lives in "New Orleans before the flood/you had just met a girl and fallen in love/she lived on a Levee and knew the blues/and played harmonica better than you". The album draws to a conclusion with the fragile whimsy of "You are forgiven" although "Cosmic American" is more plaintive and characterised by a ghostly Mitchell vocal.
"xoa" was taped during two sessions in Nashville with engineer/producer Gary Paczosa, who produced her album of folk covers "Child Ballads". He seems able to drag out of her performances that will resonate with her many admirers, and while this album could be viewed as a "stop-gap", dare you ignore the wonders of Anais Mitchell?
Review by Red on Black