Go ahead; take a glimpse into the world of Anaïs Mitchell. Even just a cursory glance produces the notion that Mitchell is not your typical folk singer nor your typical buzzed-about, up-and-coming artist. There is a quality, difficult to identify, present in Mitchell’s work that distinguishes her from standard classification. This quality is evident from even the opening strains of “Your Fonder Heart”, the first track on The Brightness, Mitchell’s third album (her first on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label). The first 60 or so seconds of that track reveal at least three musical characteristics that return time and again through the whole of the record and evidence Mitchell’s distinct approach to her craft.
First and foremost, there is the matter of Mitchell’s voice. Vibrant, precocious, unique and striking, her vocal presence makes an immediate impression. Pixie-like, yet prematurely worldly, Mitchell’s voice, when combined with a second distinctive feature, the intensity of her songwriting, quickly establishes the dichotomy that defines both her and the album. There is short supply of young songwriters (Mitchell is just 25) with fresh faces and even fresher voices who write as intensely personal, passionate and literate lyrics as Mitchell does. Throughout the album, she consistently and cleverly twists phrases and conjures up a wealth of effective imagery. The sweet and seductive beckoning contained in the first stanzas of “Your Fonder Heart” draw the listener in just as Mitchell wishes to draw the one she addresses:
“Come out, come on, come outside / Don’t you hide your handsome face from me / I want to see you half-lit in the half light, laughing with the whites of your dark eyes shining darkly / Way over yonder I’m waiting and wondering / Wither your fonder heart lies / Come out, the streets are breathing / Heaving green to red to green / Come with your nicotine and wine, tambourine keeping time / Come and find me in the evening.”
The arrangement of “Your Fonder Heart”, exhibits the third quality to remain unswerving throughout the album. Mitchell and her collaborators display a bent toward an eclectic and unpretentious production style that furthers the quirky, informal vibe intended. Centered on acoustic guitar and vocals, yet incorporating well-placed saxophone and cascading vocal harmonies, Mitchell and producer Michael Chorney seem to know when the song calls for an additional flourish or touch.
A gradually more thorough examination of Mitchell’s work and background only serve to enhance and validate the initial intuitions she evokes. Beginning her artistic journey at the age of 17 when she composed her first songs, Mitchell’s life journey has allowed for stops in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, not to mention taking her through the doors of Middlebury College in her native Vermont, where she earned a degree. In her bio, Mitchell espouses a love for literature and journalism and acknowledges having spent time in the study of languages and world politics. This love for the written word is certainly evident in the strength of her lyrical content, as previously mentioned. According to her label, Mitchell is even in the process of “staging a folk-opera based on the myth of Hades and Eurydice” (track 10, “Hades and Persephone” is a dialogue between the title characters and seems a preview of this impending work), yet another facet of Mitchell’s disposition toward the atypical.
Other tracks on The Brightness that display the effect Mitchell’s work can have when she combines her best and most distinctive traits include “Of a Friday Night” which allows Mitchell to wrap her voice around a jazzy piano accompaniment that manages to have a playfully mischievous spirit and possess a sober certainty. “Shenandoah” is a lilting folk tune built around organic instruments and harmonies, full of pastoral images of Virginia skies and harvested crops. “Song of the Magi” features perhaps Mitchell’s most powerful lyric juxtaposing the story of Christ’s birth with what appear statements on political conflict in the Middle East: “Welcome home, my child / Your home is a checkpoint now, your home is a border town / Welcome to the brawl, life ain’t fair, my child / Put your hands in the air, my child / Slowly now, single file, now up against the wall.”
There is a tremendous amount of upside to both Mitchell and The Brightness ; she seems an artist poised to make a significant impact on the indie/folk world. Having said that, it should be fairly noted that Mitchell’s work may not be for every listener. While Mitchell is to be praised for the diversity contained in each song’s arrangement, there is a similarity to the tempo and tone of each selection that could prove tiresome to some by album’s end. Mitchell’s voice may not be soothing to the ears of those expecting a singer whose texture and timbre meets some preconceived norm or standard; those willing to embrace what makes Mitchell different from her contemporaries should find her voice compelling. The Brightness is an album absolutely worth investigating for listeners seeking to be exposed to a fresh, engaging talent like Mitchell and willing to go an extra mile with the artist in order to gain a vantage point into what makes her truly herself.