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2010 is turning into an astonishing year for new albums from female singers. Thus far we have great albums from Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom, Natalie Merchant, Patti Griffin and Laura Viers and to this stellar list we must now add "Hadestown" by Anais Mitchell. Conceived in her home in rural Vermont it is an entire album or more precisely a folk opera about the Orpheus and Eurydice saga (blessedly free of Offenbach style "Can Cans"), in which a devoted musician travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead bride. But in addition she takes on board new themes in "Hadestown" set in the American depression era but prefiguring some very current issues. It would take a thesis to explain all this and if you want more info check out her fascinating interview on NPR for a thorough telling of the underpinning concept. The key fact is that the music throughout is absolutely out of the top drawer.

So who is in the cast list of this vast folk opera? Ladies and Gentleman we have -

Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) as Orpheus
Greg Brown as Hades,
Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem) as Hermes,
Ani DiFranco as Persephone,
Anais Mitchell herself in the role of Eurydice

Unsurprisingly each shines brightly particularly Greg Brown who brings a Tom Waits like granite quality to the album and overall it is a mighty collaboration from a range of musicians who are at the top of their game. Highlights on a very long album include the sparkling opener "Wedding song" a duet between Mitchell and Vernon which is just beautiful and very accessible. Mitchell's voice clearly will lead to some comparisons with Joanna Newsom but is has its distinctive edge and the standard of her song writing throughout is first class. "Our Lady of the Underground" is a sassy tale of Dr John Style jazz with a great vocal supplied by Ani DiFranco and "Wait for me" with Ben Knox Miller a true highlight with Miller's quite sinister spoken vocal introduction confirming the Tom Waits direction which the Low Anthem followed on one of the best albums of 2009 "Oh My God Charlie Darwin". Miller appears again on the wonderful duet with Mitchell on the gospel based "Way down in Hadestown" with a trumpet solo straight out of Jungle book, and in a similar vein the Hades Triplets "When the chips are town" is as catchy as hay fever from a ploughed wheat field.

The star however throughout is Anais Mitchell with her "Eurydice" a potential classic. It is a piano slow ballad with her lush vocal and a playful violin making this both sweet but very poignant. I mentioned Greg Brown's role earlier and he is a revelation. "Hey Little Songbird" is a bluesy highlight and his "Hades" is totally believable. Finally full marks should go to the great ending of the album with a deep and ominous cello leading into the mournful "Doubt comes in" combining a vocal from Vernon and Michael Corney's arrangements which are Mitchell's secret weapon throughout. While finally I doubt a more sumptuous duet will be heard on any album this year than the lovely closer "I raise my cup to him" with Ani DiFranco again providing a sterling counterpoint to the lighter voice of Mitchell. This has been a difficult review to write of an album packed with highlights and with an intriguing conceptual basis. Space precludes touching on more that 50% of the goodies contained within and like Natalie Merchants recent epic "Leave your sleep" it will take time to fully reveal itself, but also like that album it is a concept that could have fallen flat but actually works brilliantly and is delivered with real verve. The consequence of all this it at following the huge earlier promise shown on albums like "The Brightness", Anais Mitchell enters stage door left as a new and immense force on the music scene.
66 comments| 23 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 20 October 2010
Someone I know, with similar musical tastes to mine, was trying to interest me in Anais Mitchell for ages, but although I checked her out on YouTube and on her website, I just didn't get it, as her voice just irritated me. But then, for some reason, I bought "Hadestown" and...well, I may not be a fan of Ms Mitchell's singing, but I'm sure a fan of this album and everything she's achieved on it. Drawing on a wide palette of influences, she presents the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a depression-era fable, as if Tom Waits had descended on a 30s shanty-town and coaxed the residents into putting on a show with him.

Enlisting a fantastic cast of distinctive voices has certainly made a difference, and it also helps that Ms Mitchell, when she applies her own voice, does so with touching grace and delicacy, and does so on songs that suit her vocal style. Everyone else gets their moments, as well, especially Ani DiFranco, who channels Mae West in "Our Lady of the Underground". There's also the stirring call-and-response of "Why We Build the Wall" with Greg Brown's growling voice lending a beautiful gravitas, the Haden Triplets' breathtaking harmonies on all their songs and even some gorgeous Brian Wilson-like "la la la"s (to use a technical term) make an appearance. This album is chock full of glorious moments, so many that it's almost impossible, actually, to pick them out. By the time the album fades out with the sad, resigned and heartbreaking "I Raise My Cup to Him" I was almost in tears.

It's thrilling to find an album that draws on so many styles and influences and yet still manages to come up with something this fresh, this beautiful and this soulful. It is, for me, in a year of disappointments (when my expected big hitters are either doing covers or going all synth-pop) one of my favourite albums of the year, by many a mile. Even if you find Anais Mitchell not to your taste, you owe it to your music collection, not to mention your faith in music, to buy this album.
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on 9 April 2016
I really really like most of this - its a concept album and high art with some amazing arrangements - I listen to a lot of stuff through the day when pottering about the house ,and my only "complaint" with this is that you have to stop and listen. which can't be bad - at some level, it (weirdly) reminded me of carla bley's escalator over the hill (not musically, but in terms of scope of the creativity)
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on 2 February 2011
When this album was released last Spring it apparently received the best reviews (worldwide) of any album in recorded history.
I read many of the reviews but decided a folk-opera based on Greek myths didn't sound like my kind of thing. Further, I don't really like Mitchell's squeaky Kate Bush-like voice.
I was very wrong.
This album is unlike anything I've heard before: you can't say to someone 'if you like so-and-so, you'll like this'. It is the albums very originality that is breathtaking. That said, there are echoes of Tom Waits, Dr John, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, Randy Newman and Bertold Brecht.
The songs are fabulous and gloriously arranged - some you feel you've known all your life.
In 'Why We Build The Wall' the album has the best song I've heard since.........? - a parable of ancient myth and modern political statement.
In all the album is a miracle, an utter joy which I feel would have a large public if only people got to hear it.
Give it a chance
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on 12 September 2011
Anais Mitchell is simply world class.
Her song writing is artistic, poetic, imaginative, thought prevoking, theatrical and extremely entertaining.
In Hadestown she has excelled and created a masterpiece.
A folk opera of genius proportions.
The cast have been hand picked to perfection.
She has Justin Vernon of Bon Iver ( Orpheus ) - Greg Brown ( Hades ) - Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem ( Hermes ) Ani Difranco ( Persephone ) and Anais is cast as Eurydice.
Each of these astounding individuals bring their own unique flavour to this complete " Classic " of an album - it couldn't really fail.
The reviewer RED ON BLACK from Cardiff sums it up so beautifully and eloquently that I will, simply, refer everyone to this wonderful review.
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on 23 October 2013
I bought this upon release based upon a single review. I'm not sure why I was so impulsive but the review just shouted out that this was a CD worth buying, an investment. Upon receiving the CD, I began to gradually fall in love with the rather wonderful music of Anaïs Mitchell. This CD has since been played more than any other and become a firm favourite. No matter what music you enjoy, I am sure you will grow to love this CD. If you don't then I weep for your lack of taste. You're missing out. Big style. I won't go into details about individual songs, I'll leave that to the other reviewers. Just go and buy this album. You'll not regret it. Life-changing, in a beautiful and positive manner. Praise music, praise the genius of Anaïs Mitchell.
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on 29 August 2011
It's a long time since I've heard such a complete & original 'concept' album. This is one of those CDs that you can listen to over and over again - IN FULL - and keep discovering more gems each time.

With such an unusual mix of styles and sounds, it was a while before I recommended this to anyone, but now I've started I just can't stop - and everyone so far has been similarly impressed.

The beautiful packaging (complete with a full lyric booklet for a change) also makes it well worth owning the original (rather than just an MP3 version).

Any album that can make me bother to look up the detail of a Greek myth just has to be fantastic.

Buy now and listen in full... I promise you won't be disappointed!
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on 30 May 2010
You must experience this because it's heartfelt and astoundingly well-made, with wonderful catchy refrains and is a pleasure to listen to. The concept gives it a backbone and encourages you to listen all the way through. The songs are all blinders but one or two towards the end are slower and more discordant which may jar. If you dismiss a song like 'Wait For Me' because it isn't trying to be gnarly you need a clip 'round the ear because you're a very cynical creature. A brilliant album that can seem Disney-ish in its theatricality, but the grizzly Tom Waits-like vocals grime it with edge if you feel embarrassed about listening to that kind of thing. A truly, genuinely great album that doesn't pander to any demographic and seems like it was made with honesty and sincerity. Anais Mitchell has the type of voice that can express a multitude of feelings in very few words.
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on 25 November 2014
I've listened to this album nearly every day for the past 6 weeks. It's become a bit of an obsession. Having liked 'Young Man in America', I wasn't sure about this album after a quick 'track scan' on Amazon - it was very different, but a few weeks later I bought it. What a good choice! It just gets more absorbing with each listen. Fantastic music, vocals and lyrics.
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on 29 July 2010
There's very few pieces of music that can take me completely away from everything; that make you forget that there is anything else at all. The story of Orpheus, every tune is unique but carved from the same wood. By the time 'How Long?' is reached, you'll never want to come back.
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