Playing Time - 39:37 -- From Vermont, Anaïs Mitchell is a singer-songwriter with a precociously girlish voice. A winner of the New Folk competition at the Kerrville, Tx. Folk Festival, she's only in her 20s but has already released three albums since 2002. "The Brightness" is a debut on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe record label. With similar tempos and melodies, Mitchell's contemplative songs require astute listening and comprehension skills. Her lyrics need your focus and undivided attention. "Your Fonder Heart" demonstrates her wide vocal range as she sings "way over yonder I'm waiting and wondering, whether your fonder heart lies." The album's title is derived from the second track, "Of a Friday Night," a ballad that is full of nostalgic imagery as it paints a picture of a time-worn town with its old poet that once knew fullness in the quarter "out in the brightness of a Friday night." Carrying her own poetic and literary torch, Mitchell seems willing to assume various roles in the song as good time gambler, restless wife, or midnight writer if she can help revive that Friday night luster that once was. Her enthusiasm and optimism glow.
Embellished with Michael Chorney's melancholic saxophone, "Namesake" makes an exclamatory statement - "everybody knows you, nobody knows you, everybody knows you, I want to know you." I view the song as a search for identity among both oneself as well as another with whom your name is shared. "Shenandoah," one of the few tracks featuring Ben Campbell's banjo and background vocals, relates a tale of love lost, a reckless daughter of the rolling water. Accepting loss and pain can be stressful and demanding. We cope in different ways, and "Changer" seems to just ask for a little reconciliation and understanding: "I know love is a stranger, I know that changes come, I know love is a changer." While Anais' mainly plays guitar and sings, this song is the only one with her piano in the mix. Other instrumentation on the project includes some understated lap steel, bass, sax, organ, drums, viola, banjo and cello. Besides three songs with background vocals by Ben Campbell, some are also sung by Miriam Bernardo.
"Song of the Magi," a song awash in emotion, is set in a welcoming west bank town that, because of war, evolves into a town of hope. "Santa Fe Dream" is ambient and austere in the shadows, but Mitchell conveys a pleasurable sentiment - "if it should happen, if you should turn to see, the way that moon sheds her light, on your love where she sleeps, go lay down beside her, and wonder again, that such a small window, lets so much light in." I can sense that Anais loves to travel, and some of her inspiration comes from discoveries along her journeys. "Hobo's Lullaby" continues the album's sleepy, lulling atmosphere, and if there's one complaint, it might have been nice to orchestrate the set with a few moderately-tempo'ed pieces for some pick-me-ups. "Old-Fashioned Hat" is about not needing much to enjoy life and love, but the song ends on a pessimistic note that, following marriage, there will be fighting, drinking and forgetfulness. Inspired by Greek mythology, "Hades & Persephone" is presented as a conversation between the King and Queen of the Underworld. Hades obtained his queen through trickery, but Persephone seems astute enough to ask "what does he care for the logic of kings? the laws of your underworld? it is only for love that he sings! he sings for the love of a girl." Set in New Orleans, I interpret "Out of Pawn" as a tale written from Uncle Louie's heart and experience during the flood when it was realized that "the girl and the city were one and the same, and last call never came."
In lean, rawboned singer/songwriter fashion, Anais Mitchell's alluring feminine voice is the radiant and resplendent beam in each piece. With a buoyant and feathery presentation, the troubadour provides some novel interpretive tales and twists to emotional attachment, sensitive feelings, and even controversial political issues. I was hoping to peruse her lyrics for a much better understanding of this songwriter's muse. Instead, I'm just left with as many questions as answers. I understand that she gets considerable inspiration from "The Alexandria Quartet" (a 4-part novel series by Brit author Lawrence Durrell). She also once wanted to become a journalist. In a sense, "The Brightness" is a kind of musical diary or journal that documents her thoughts, happenings, and probably some fictional occurrences too. She writes very legibly, and I think her best Pulitzer prize-winning music may still be yet to come. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)