Traditional mountain singing isn't for everyone. Some of the most authentic voices, captured on long ago compilation albums, are difficult for modern ears to accustom themselves. Even renowned and popular vocalists like Jean Ritchie, Ola Belle Reed and Alice Gerrard have been known to raise an eyebrow when encountered for the first time.
There remain those who appreciate rough hewn voices unfettered by mainstream considerations. Powerful voices that project above accompaniment, singing centuries-old songs, are the basis of any American folk exploration. Tied to traditions that reach across generations, traditional Appalachian vocalizing is a wonder to behold and Anna & Elizabeth deliver a wide-ranging and entirely engrossing sampling of this music on their beautifully packaged sophomore album.
Elizabeth Laprelle possesses a stark voice from another time: one can well imagine discovering hers amongst Helen Cockram's or Kate Peters Sturgill's on an old Folkways or Blue Ridge album found at an estate sale. While nuanced, Laprelle makes no attempt to disguise the natural influences her culture brings to her music. As with the album as a whole, authenticity is apparent, but modern recording technologies and a belief that these songs have a place within contemporary settings makes this presentation more palatable to casual listeners than recordings of similar - and in many cases, the same - songs 40 or 60 years ago.
Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a multi-instrumental maven, demonstrating her mastery on banjo, fiddle and guitar. As duet partners, she and Laprelle are ideally suited and while the emphasis may be on their incredible voices, frequently singing without accompaniment, at no time does one feel that the album is lacking instrumentally. The closing track "Ida Red," stripped of its familiar western swing trappings, is an entirely different song revealed through clawhammer-style banjo playing.
"Orfeo" is presented making the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice more contextually relevant; guest Joey Abarta provides the haunting uilleann pipes, and Celtic connections are made more apparent as the ballad unfolds.
Other highlights include an uninhibited rendition of "Little Black Train" (also recently uncovered by Carlene Carter) and "Greenwood Sidey," an absolute stunning take of "The Cruel Mother." Much appreciated are more modern songs, "Won't You Come and Sing For Me," a glorious Hazel Dickens' composition, and Bill Monroe and Bessie Lee Maudlin's "Voice From on High."
To appreciate the traditional ballads - many of which are convoluted through narrative gaps and arcane, but beautiful vocabulary - requires effort on the part of the listener. Anna & Elizabeth present their songs in a manner that should minimizes mind-wandering: they are entirely engaging.