Anna & Elizabeth quickly became one of my favorite roots music acts with their self-titled sophomore release in 2015. They gave some hint about the direction they were taking their love of traditional ballads with a vinyl single they released in 2017 that offered non-traditional arrangements of two old songs, “Hop High” and “Here In The Vineyard.” Now on their third full-length, Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt have moved to the forefront of avant-garde folk music.
The Invisible Comes To Us is many things. It’s their major-label debut, as they move from a small independent label to the powerhouse Smithsonian Folkways, promoted by a big-name music publicist firm. It’s a deeply personal exploration of the universal truths Anna & Elizabeth discover in the songs they’ve found in archives. It’s an eclectic sonic experiment that places these old ballads in settings that range from atmospheric to rhythmic to ethereal, using a wide range of instruments both acoustic and electronic as well as studio techniques like sound collage, sampling, and chopping. It’s Anna & Elizabeth stretching their wings while remaining firmly rooted in tradition.
A double handful of additional musicians are credited with contributions to this album. Chief among them are Benjamin Lazar Davis, who co-produced with Roberts-Gevalt and plays a bunch of keyboards and other instruments including Moog bass, Mellotron and pump organ; the progressive pedal steel player Susan Alcorn; and drummer Jim White. These plus players of horns, woodwinds, guitar and more, with the creative production of Anna and Ben, add up to a mesmerizing sonic experience that brings these songs and tales to life.
And what an amazing passel of songs they are. With one or two exceptions, they’re wrenching songs of loss and loneliness, of the hardships faced by those who have to leave their homes and wander the earth, and those who are left behind; those who have lost loved ones, lovers, and family members. The sonic updating of these tales emphasizes their universality; in a modern setting, ballads of emigration and war and alienation ring just as true today as they did hundreds of years ago.
I hardly know where to begin with the individual songs, so I’ll start at the end. It’s a track called “Margaret,” and it’s an excerpt of a record made by Margaret Shipman in Massachusetts around 1940. It’s one of several field and old folk recordings made by Helen Hartness Flanders that contributed to this album. The scratchy old record combines bits of several songs sung unaccompanied by Ms. Shipman, save for some subtle keyboarding added by Anna. The medley sets the theme of the album, and so Anna & Elizabeth have recorded their own version of it and made it the album’s first track, which they’ve titled “Jeano.” I’ve found that listening to them in this order, first Margaret and then Anna & Elizabeth, to be an intensely moving experience.
The most traditionally performed song is the Child ballad “John Of Hazelgreen,” sung in a straightforward manner by the duo and accompanied by banjo and guitar. It’s also about the only one with a happy ending, in which the weeping maid is united with her own true love. The only other one that comes close is another old English ballad “Black Eyed Susan,” also known as “Sweet William’s Farewell,” on which Elizabeth sings the lead. Indeed the song details William’s pledge of steadfast love for Susan as he sails the seas, but both the beginning of the song (a portentous instrumental folk-rock tune) and the ending (in which poor Susan raises her lily-white hand in adieu) let us know that his fate may not be a happy one.
The level of sonic experimentation increases on the remainder of these songs. That Mellotron shows up dramatically in the choruses of “Ripest Of Apples,” sung by Anna, in which a woman laments ever falling in love and wonders whether she’ll have to follow that lover across the “wild cruel ocean.” Anna double-tracks her vocals on those choruses, and also is heard, whisperlike, reciting the same words behind the sung vocals. The two sing a lovely duet on the penultimate track, the old hymn “Mother In The Graveyard,” which is given a hypnotic, one-chord treatment as the singer longs to join her mother in heaven.
Layers of sound collage, including multiple droning keyboards, horns, and strings lend a mysterious air to the obscure ballad “Irish Patriot.” Alcorn’s droning and moaning pedal steel combined with Elizabeth’s tour-de-force vocal delivery makes “Farewell To Erin” a spine-tingling lament of aching loss. She takes the opposite tack on the dark ballad “Virginia Rambler,” her languid, meandering vocals aptly illustrating the state of mind of the protagonist, who’s unhinged when the girl he loves marries another man. “And now my heart is broken, and all my pleasure’s gone,” she concludes. Alcorn’s pedal steel and White’s brushed snare seem to follow the poor fellow as he fades away into the wilderness.
The remaining two tracks are a related pair. Anna, Elizabeth and Davis penned a short song, “Woman Is Walking,” which the duo first sing by itself, and then interweave with Anna’s chopped recitation of a tale called “By The Shore.” The gist is, a sea captain kidnaps the woman he has seen walking by the shore, and beguiles captain and crew with song to escape, using his sword to row back to shore in her little boat. It becomes a circular tale of song and walking, seizing and escaping, paddling back and forth, boat to shore to boat to shore, an emblem, it seems to me, of women’s eternal quest for dignity and self-determination in the face of the brute strength of men.
As with their previous albums, Anna & Elizabeth give information in the liner notes about the songs – their provenance, who recorded and performed the recordings on which they base their versions. “These are songs we first heard in small archives in our home states, Vermont and Virginia,” the duo wrote in the sleeve notes. “Recordings made in living rooms and kitchens, of songs learned in childhood. The characters, and the landscapes they occupied, grew rich in our minds. This record grew out of the desire to show you the world we saw in these songs.”
This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. Those who want their ballads straight, without electronic drones and studio manipulation, may find it hard to embrace. I find The Invisible Comes To Us one of the most moving works I’ve heard in some time. Anna & Elizabeth are masterful interpreters of folk songs, and with this album they continue to demonstrate that the old is eternally new.
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2018)
You can pre-order the album and listen to samples of all tracks on the Folkways website.