ANNA & ELIZABETH – The Invisible Comes To Us (Smithsonian Folkways SFW40229)

WThe Invisible Comes To Ushen you see the terms avant-garde and experimentation, you may tend to fear the worst. Good news then that, for their new label debut, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are beguiling rather than baffling, the album a collection of mostly obscure ancient folk ballads they uncovered in the archives in their home states of Virginia and Vermont. In interpreting them, the duo have their own core instrumentation (viola, banjo, guitar, vocoder) with different musicians’ contributions on assorted tracks. Adam Dotson, for example, plays trumpet and euphonium on the hauntingly sparse, breathily sung opening number, ‘Jeano’, a song, originally titled ‘Jeano And Jeannette’ and learned from a 1940 recording of Margaret Shipman from Massachusetts, about a woman lamenting her lover going off to war (“If I were Queen of France, or still better Pope of Rome, I’d have no fighting men abroad, nor weeping maids at home”) that closes on a dreamy wash of birds and bells.

It’s followed by probably the best-known track, a slow reading of the traditional folk sailor’s farewell ‘Black Eyed Susan’, again featuring Dotson and with a doomy, funereal drum beat by Jim White before the vocals arrive and the accompaniment softens. Dotson and White again adding distinctive colours, ‘Ripest Of Apples’ was sourced, like several of the songs, from the Helen Hartness Flanders collection from the singing of Belle Luther Richards from New Hampshire, while, at six minutes, ‘Irish Patriot’, a song about the mysterious man of the title, first collected in Maine, sports the shimmering, oscillating and discordant sound fragments influence of Philip Jeck as well as saxophone and the sampled voice of Flanders herself.

Sung in Appalachian-styled harmonies and featuring flute and clarinet complementing the dappled banjo sounds, ‘John Of Hazelgreen’ hails from Virginia and the Arthur-Kyle Davis archive and is followed by the only original number, the duo’s self-penned 65-second lyrically minimal ‘Woman Is Walking’ underpinned by the faintest hints of drums and euphonium.

With its listlessly meandering almost disoriented feel, ‘Virginia Rambler’ is especially sparse with LaPrelle’s dry and dusty echoey vocals set against White’s percussion, keyboard drone and distorted flutters of guitar and pedal steel. ‘By The Shore’ is perhaps the most experimental track, a number collected by Flanders and Marguerite Olney from the repertoire of Adirondack singer Lena Bourne Fish, or Grammy Fish, and delivered as a spoken word piece that, backdropped with drone and distorted and at times cacophonous sonics, draws on the beat poetry influences of Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson and also interpolates the lyric refrain from ‘Woman Is Walking’ into the original.

Intoned rather than sung and accompanied by the drone of pedal steel and a hardanger d’amore, a 10-string fiddle, the longest track, at over six minutes, is ‘Farewell to Erin’, a song of migration collected in Maine by John Lomax from the singing of Carrie Gorham/ Redolent of its Appalachian roots and the number most likely to attract the ‘Oh Brother’ brigade, the traditional folk spiritual ‘Mother In The Graveyard’, the final song, comes from Vermont and the singing of Hildreth Brown. It’s not the final track, however, as the album ends as it began with ‘Margaret’, being Flanders’ crackly original recording of Margaret Shipman’s opener, completing the album’s musical circle binding past and present. It may not be to mainstream retro-folk tastes, but those who seek it out will be well-rewarded.

Mike Davies

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