Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer
The courtly majesty, delicate melody, and attentive narrative of old English folk songs have always been a force in Anaïs Mitchell’s work, which has gained a loyal following since her 2010 album, “Hadestown.” This time around, with partner Jefferson Hamer serving as a steady vocal harmonist, she’s gone straight to the source and adapted a handful of classic tunes from the landmark 1800s collection by early folklorist Sir Francis James Child. Like psalms, these songs have parenthetical notation — “Willie’s Lady (Child 6).” The album is just seven songs, but each one moves quickly under matter-of-fact strumming and through text so dense with swift storytelling details — precise weather reports, harsh geography, prices of fair white steeds — that there’s still plenty to return to.
Joanna Newsom’s reedy, quivering voice figures heavily as an influence in Mitchell’s voice. Under her control, it feels steeled against the historical bad news in these songs. “Geordie” recounts a maid whose husband faces hanging for poaching. Joan Baez gave the song an aching, sparse treatment in 1971 that’s tough to beat, but Mitchell focuses more on atmosphere and looks for breathy nuances as words trail off, floorboards creak, and a violin bow peels across sandy strings. It’s an approach you’ve heard in everything from Gillian Welch to Tom Waits; and, in a strange way, it’s this attention to rustic detail that gives the recording its modern voice.
ESSENTIAL “Willie of Winsbury (Child 100)”
Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer perform at Club Passim on April 10.