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Mitchell’s latest appeals to fans of modern folk

Marty Schroeder | Friday, February 16, 2007

Some music rocks, some displays brilliant composition and some is perfect for spending a rainy day sitting and looking out a window. Ana’s Mitchell’s latest album, “The Brightness,” is definitely of the third variety.

With her girlish, innocent voice, complemented by piano and folk melodies, her songs calm listeners and remind them that electric guitars are not always the best option. Appropriately released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, Mitchell presents an authenticity and quiet passion absent in so many modern records.

The two opening tracks on “The Brightness” tweak the listening process by slowly delving into emotional catastrophe and then ending abruptly. Any form of catharsis is denied, a tactic that keeps ears perked and leaves the listener wondering what comes next when the final emotional release is expected. The sound may create an auditory experience similar to listening to any random folk recording out today. However, Mitchell does delve into cliché at times, as she calls herself a “beautiful fly on the wall” in the album’s third track, “Namesake.” Contradictions like this abound throughout the album, making it a prime example of first-class song writing that is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Songs such as “Shenandoah” lilt through their melodies as guitars are gently plucked and notes are sung. Bringing to mind an association with nature that melds perfectly with folk melody chains on the album. This may sound like some form of hippie-minded technique from New England (Mitchell is a Vermont native), but the sincerity inherent in Mitchell’s vocal style quickly discounts any political haranguing except to the most cynical.

One track in particular, however, challenges modern political situations. “Song of the Magi” makes references to the birth of Jesus in what is now the West Bank. Pulling imagery from both the Bible and the modern reality of the West Bank today, she weaves a story about shepherds praying and passing by checkpoints. Mitchell does crawl meanderingly on top of her soapbox with a political message decrying violence in the region, but she alludes to a general belief in nonviolence that mostly refrains from taking sides. Rather, Mitchell calls for a return to the concept of nonviolence that many say Jesus delivered.

“Hobo’s Song” is the most energetic track on the album – if any of the tracks can be labeled “energetic” – that adds a bluegrass mix to the pervasive folk aesthetic. The lyrics are well wrought, but Mitchell’s vocal stylizations don’t mix as well with the song’s bluegrass elements. Her voice is far more conducive to the album’s overall neo-folk feel. Rather than trying to sound punchy, Mitchell would do well to keep to her folk-minded warbling and leave the bluegrass to those with the graver voices.

Mitchell thrives with a style of acoustic strumming and singing that trickles across the notes like a stream over pebbles. Those of more rock-minded musical persuasions, however, might want to look elsewhere. For listeners seeking to expand their horizons and explore music that may never see a radio dial (because it’s too good), “The Brightness” is an excellent choice. The first half of the album is for the melancholy in us all, and the latter half piques intellectual interest as the songwriting delves into more complex and complicated themes and images. “The Brightness” is a well-made album from this rising folk star.