From Americana to singer-songwriters, progressive to traditional bluegrass, contemporary to traditional folk, and old-time to Celtic music...2013 brought a bumper crop of impressive new albums. Here's my favorite five Trail Mix CDs of the year, and we'll follow in a separate article with my thoughts on many other notable new releases.
Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Anais Mitchell has been building a reputation as one of the most interesting young singer-songwriters in contemporary folk, but her interest in traditional music resulted in this duo, with her band's lead guitarist Jefferson Hamer, recording seven of the 305 traditional English and Scottish songs collected in the 19th century by Harvard professor Francis Child. In these timeless tales, tragedy and trickery, drownings and curses and hanging are on occasion overcome by young lovers. The spare yet contemporary two acoustic guitar arrangements and the close harmonies of Mitchell and Hamer breath new life into these enduring songs and make this listener hope for a volume two.
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
I first saw Sarah Jarosz as a preteen and through her early teen years at the Rockygrass Festival, where she kept getting invited to sit in on stage. Since then, she's turned 22, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, and this year released her 3rd CD on Sugar Hill Records. While I loved the first two, Jarosz takes a major leap forward here, with mostly original and very powerful songs, and stellar performances from her core trio with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. Jarosz, adept at banjo, guitar, mandolin and the larger octave mandolin, has become a compelling singer as well. While the instrumentation is rooted in bluegrass, the music has as strong a groove as the best pop and rock songs. With special guests like mandolinist Chris Thile on the hard hitting Fuel the Fire and singer Aoife O'Donovan providing the harmonies on the title track, Jarosz is cementing her place as one of the most exciting young artists in acoustic music.
Amy Speace, How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat
Music was not Amy Speace's first career in the performing arts. Her theater career touring with the National Shakespeare Company preceded her decision just over a decade ago to focus on writing and performing her own songs. On this new CD, each song makes allusion to a passage from Shakespeare, but you do not need to be familiar with the Bard to appreciate this set of powerful, beautiful songs. Eschewing the often drum and electric guitar heavy settings of much of her past work, Speace puts her lovely voice front and center with generally sparse arrangements. But her voice is more than just lovely - she totally inhabits the characters in and lyrics of her songs. Speaking of lyrics, her use of language combines both sophistication and simplicity. Among the many highlights, the duet vocal with guest John Fullbright on The Sea and the Shore is a near perfect interplay of two lovers drifting apart, equal parts gorgeous and tragic.
Susan Werner, Hayseed
Susan Werner may be a classically trained vocalist who is also adept at jazz, but she's also a farm kid, from a long line of family farmers in eastern Iowa, and she casts a loving, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes quite poignant light on farmers and farming and her home state on this very engaging album. In City Kids, you can almost hear the sneer in her voice as the farm girl notes how easy the city kids have it and though they once looked down on the farm kids, now they flock to pay high prices for those grown up farm kids' organic produce. Back to the Land is a rip-roaring anthem about getting back to the farm, while Something to be Said makes a quieter case for rural life. While You Wait for the Rain explores the mindset of farmers totally dependent on forces they cannot control, while Bumper Crop casts an eye on what farm kids were doing out in the fields late on a summer night. All these and more make this a blue ribbon crop of songs.
Aoife O'Donovan, Fossils
After a decade as lead singer for the progressive string band Crooked Still, Aoife O'Donovan steps into a singer-songwriter setting on this impressive solo debut. With a voice that is achingly lovely, her singing can sound quiet and intense at the same time. There's little doubt about her songwriting ability; Alison Krauss made O'Donovan's Lay My Burden Down one of her signature songs, but O'Donovan reclaims it with a different and more intriguing arrangement here. Whether inspired by a dark Anne Sexon poem, as on Briar Rose, or encapsulating desire, as on Red & White & Blue & Gold, O'Donovan has a strong collection of songs here. There's a far more contemporary sound than the rootsy vibe of Crooked Still, but rather than overwhelming O'Donovan's voice, the production tends to accentuate and complement it.