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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 20 February 2013
I just received the new album Child Ballads, by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. It's simply wonderful! I have heard all these songs by many artists and I never tire of them, and this collection is no doubt the best I've ever heard. The voices of Anais and Jefferson render these songs beautifully, with sparse instrumentation but for a very good pair of guitars.

If these song don't touch you emotionally something is wrong. The world is better for this. I will play this CD over and over, at home and in my car.

You can't do anything wrong if you buy this album!
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I like this album very much overall. It takes some guts to record some of these ballads after they have achieved legendary status in versions by truly great performers, but by and large Mitchell and Hamer pull it off very well.

I confess that I was a bit dubious about two US musicians, however good, recording these ancient British songs. I used to love to hear the ballads, usually unaccompanied, in smoky folk clubs in the 70s and then loved the accompanied recorded versions by Fairport, Pentangle and others, so they are deeply ingrained in me and I feel very protective toward them. Happily, I think that nearly all of these versions are also excellent and add a fresh feel to the songs which I like very much. There is some lovely guitar work and the harmonies are beautiful. They are not in a style we might expect in these songs and the tone is often brighter and brisker than we may be used to, but that's fine by me and I really like the feel of it.

The one exception to this is Geordie. This is such a beautifully tragic ballad that the slight jauntiness of the treatment jarred rather badly with me. It's not that I want it to be austere and grim - one of my favourite versions is by Trees on their album On The Shore, which is anything but austere - but it does need an air of lament about it which is somewhat lacking here.

That aside, this is a terrific album of hugely enjoyable arrangements of wonderful traditional songs, and warmly recommended.
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on 19 February 2013
I had not heard of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer before....and was instantly and totally enthralled with their treatment of this aged and exalted music. Their take is reverential, yet very personal, singing each old ballad with warmth and respect, yet feeling free enough to make it their own. With this fresh, light touch, they make these good old songs sound like they've just been penned. Their voices blend well together, and the lovely guitar work sets the perfect stage for the voices to shine. Truly, I can't stop listening to it - and already feel that this release will be my favorite of 2013.
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on 3 April 2013
I bought this disc without ever having heard it or the performers before, because it seemed like a brave attempt to devote a whole album to some of the ballads catalogued by Francis James Child, albeit that only seven ballads are included. Of course, not all of the ballads have come down through the oral tradition, and this presents the singer with particular challenges. The singing is good and the instrumental accompaniment tasteful. Yet the overall impression I had was that the sound delivered is too sugary and melodically and harmonically lacking in variety, to bring out the sometimes brutally dramatic or mystical narratives of the ballads. This effect is increased by the close vocal harmonies employed, even if they are pleasant on the ear. The 'rose and briar' cover design is arty but tends to reinforce this slightly sentimentalised approach. The stories the ballads tell seem to be carried over the heads of the listener and the detailed plot overwhelmed, or at least demanding of an extra concentration capable of penetrating the comfortable vocal and instrumental sound. I do not doubt the sincerity, dedication and technical ability of the performers, but for me I do not think that the true character and essence of the ballads is best captured by this style of performance.
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The collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century have been endlessly plundered by artists both sides of the Atlantic. It takes a brave set of musicians to dust them down again and follow in the hallowed footsteps of Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Joan Baez, Pentangle, Steeleye Span and most of all Fairport Convention whose classic Sandy Denny driven covers on "Liege and Lief" contain what many feel to be the definitive versions of songs like "Sir Patrick Spens" and the epic "Tam Lin". But it is to the credit of Anais Mitchell and her fellow songwriter/instrumentalist, Jefferson Hamer that they take this very bold step and succeed. Mitchell of course is utterly fearless in her musical travels. After two brilliantly constructed and self-written "folk operas" 2010's staggering "Hadestown" and one of 2012's best "Young Man in America", she takes these songs and blows some fresh air into their dusty halls. Working with Hamer the two stress the "pure-heartedness of storytelling" but infuse them with a nice American twist, without being disrespectful to their Celtic origins or mystical roots.

The result is a lovely album full of warmth and wit, a sort of "wyrd" freak-folk with proper tunes. Some will argue that there are better and more authentic versions of Childs ballads on offer but that misses the point. In taking only a small selection Mitchell and Hamer have produced a small wonder with their own personal stamp firmly imprinted upon it. Take the gentle and rolling Scottish Ballad which harks bark to at least 1775 "Willie of Winsbury" where both singers compliment each other perfectly and tale the tell beautifully. Moreover it does make you head over to the music of Anne Briggs for a second hearing and that is a real bonus. Next up "Willie's Lady" about the breaking of a evil spell and has been brilliantly covered previously by Ray Fisher who married the words to the tune of the Breton "Son ar Chiste" (The Song of Cider). It is a great story to tell and done with real pace and verve on this album. Granted when you hear "Sir Patrick Spens" it is a much softer version than the "Leige and Leif" version and suffers for this. Yet Mitchell has a winning voice and gives the song a transatlantic freshness which is very endearing. Alternatively on "Riddles Wisely Expounded" Hamer takes the lead and frankly it does sound a bit like James Taylor. Those used to the the haunting tones of the Scottish folk doyen Jean Redpath's version may find this rather sugary concoction a bit to sweet to take. This is not to disparage both artists intent to challenge this traditional canon and as Mitchell has stated "we wanted to be able to stand in our own shoes as Americans, to sing these songs and have them be understood without feeling like we were playing dress up or posing," She does this particularly brilliantly on the tremendous "Clyde Waters" which is a real standout here. Penultimate song "Geordie" is so familiar that Mitchell and Hamer's sprightly version is almost like an alt country take which some may find slightly sacrilegious but its great song. Finally on to "Tam Lin" where the version here is a pure acoustic wonder so different from the powerhouse that Denny committed to vinyl that comparions are almost meaningless.

Martin Carthy speaking of Child's ballads in the Guardian emphatically stated that "the great thing about this stuff is how much you can change it, you can do anything you like with it, as long as what the song is saying isn't obscured". In the case of Mitchell's "Tam Lin" it is crystal clear and performed with such heart that it is difficult not to be won over. Indeed throughout while Hamer is a worthy musical partner it is clear who the star of the show is from the first note. Both artists have dipped a toe into the oceanic mass of the Child Ballads which suggest that there may be more to come. That would be very welcome for this is a beguiling album with folk standards well re-imagined and executed. Can Anais Mitchell do no wrong....it appears not.
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on 11 February 2013
I rarely buy CDs, being lucky enough to be given many. But having seen Hamer and Mitchell live during Celtic Connections, I really have been counting the days till the UK release. Their treatment of the Child Ballads makes them sound as fresh and exciting as they must have sounded to those first listeners centuries ago, but they manage to do this without harking back to other more recent interpreters like Fairport Convention. That may not have pleased the Guardian's reviewer, but most of us surely prefer musicians to reinvent rather than imitate. Simple but classy and a real delight.
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on 11 February 2013
This collection of seven Child ballads offers a series of fascinating reinterpretations of this traditional material that reminds me just how important these old songs were to what we would now call Americana.

While Jude Rogers, writing in The Guardian, dismissed these re-imaginings of the old songs as losing their impact because of the "pretty harmonies" and the "over exquisite" playing and production, I can't agree. Of course it's a matter of taste - and I should say I'm as fond of older folk and folk rock styles of delivery of songs like Tam Linn as anyone. But it really would be a great shame if this kind of criticism - the old "authentic folk" argument repackaged - put anyone off listening to this bold attempt to re-present these songs. At the very least an audience attuned to Anais Mitchell's excellent body of contemporary work will get a chance to hear these songs, which they might well not hear otherwise.

So these interpretations are light years away from the work of Anne Briggs on the one hand or Fairport Convention on the other. So what? This is a set of brave interpretations led by an original American singer who clearly respects the great storytelling that animates these songs. Enjoy!
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on 9 April 2016
THis is probably the best folk album i've bought in the last 5 years. It is a fantastic duet both in guitar arrangements (deceptively simple - trust me, they aint -the interlocking parts/rhythms are great) and beautifully judged low key harmony singing, with very well matched voice tones! plus Child Ballads, so all the songs are classic in any case, with a fresh feel. spot on.
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on 19 June 2014
As a singer in folk clubs, I have heard many versions of many Child ballads, and have adapted a few myself.

This stunning collection, combining mesmerising vocals with excellent accompaniment is about as good as it gets. It has a huge amount to offer everybody, not just purists of collecting old songs. Her voice is something else and the sympathetic way that they treat each song, giving it the reverence it deserves together with the broad appeal that lifts the songs into the 22st century...

My only complaint, and it is one... is that I wish they had added a fews more on the album. Not long enough!

in the first week, it has probably been played each and every day. That good.
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on 22 March 2013
On first playing one or two pieces stand out but most take on a plodding repetitive trilling drone.
I agree with previous reviewer same old and these traditional songs have such better rewarding variations for me.
The voices became annoying to my ear so I had to move the album on.
.
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