Anaïs Mitchell has one of those unique voices that only a select few folk singers carry. Her vocal style and determined nature rewarded her with a record contract on Ani DiFranco's record label several years ago after releasing two independent albums. She has been compared to Gillian Welch and Joanna Newsom. This album has a large array of guest artists ranging from Justin Vernon of Bon over to Ani DiFranco and Ben Miller from The Low Anthem. The listener will witness 20 tracks of folk opera mayhem. Modern folk tends to be overproduced and has several flaws, Hadestown seems to dodge these flaws.
Almost every track has a guest. Justin Vernon features six times on this album and his harmonic vocals sit tightly over the compact 70's-esque folk instrumental. This is a concept album and it's a huge project that has been well funded. The opening track is called 'The Wedding Song', it has a stylistic guitar riff and fantastic left sided slide guitar. Mitchell's vocals are very energetic and sound like Joanna Newsom without the force field, cuter, if you will. Justin has a perfect voice and he delivers with great venom.
'Epic (Part One)' has Justin Vernon singing lead vocals. His ability to reach notes brings Mitchell's music to the next level. The sparse recording works with Justin's heartfelt vocal which he showcased on 2008's 'For Emma, Forever Ago'. As the harmonic vocals come to a stand still, the next track called 'Way Down Hadestown' enters with Appalachian influences and a harmonica introduction. Ben Miller gives the opening vocal which sounds very aged and gives a perfect image of the concept. 'Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus must embark on a quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld'. Each member of the story is played by the assemble of guests. Way Down Hadestown has verses by Mitchell, Ani DiFranco and Ben Miller from The Low Anthem. The track has a beautiful chorus and the drumming sounds spectacular among the vocal pieces.
The next track has veteran folk artists Greg Brown give his vocal. The track has some beautiful string arrangements and noticeable guitar on the left speaker. 'Gone, I'm Gone' expands on the concept lyrically. Mitchell's vocals sound eerie as the gloomy atmosphere brightens with left/right sided vocal segments by 'The Haden Triplets'. This leads in to the excitable 'When The Chips Are Down'. It has upright bass and sounds like a jazz jam at the beginning before the vocals kick in and display a heavy array of harmony. The three singers give perfect vocals and their contribution is noted with great envy.
'Wait For Me' has a horrifying spoken word segment by Ben Miller in the first half of the track. It has violin stabs and brilliant atmosphere before Justin Vernon returns giving yet another delicate vocal which has been layered to his expected standard. The mix between Justin's desperate, uplifting vocal and Ben's angered, evil vocal creates something spectacular here. The track ends with little piano notes before closing gently. The next track has a much heavier drum beat and more noticeable upright bass. Greg Brown then delivers a standout vocal. Mitchell's array of vocalists then answer Greg's questions which fantastic stage-like acting. The lyrics are stunning on this track, "Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty, And the wall keeps out the enemy, And we build the wall to keep us free". The vocals are set out in a question/answer style to relate to the mythological story, it works perfectly.
Ani DiFranco makes an appearance on 'Our Lady of the Underground'. The track starts of rather flat before the guitars stretch over the upright bass and obscured drumming. Mitchell's childish vocal segment works a charm with Ani DiFranco's mature vocal. A horn section finishes off the track as Ani sings and rhymes almost expected, asking rhetorical questions closing it off. The feminine power continues on Mitchells 'Flowers (Eurydice's Song)'. She proves that she doesn't need guest vocalists to boost her esteem and album releases. Her vocal is sexy and the instrumental has been slowed down creating an astonishingly beautiful track of effectless vocals sung in style by Anaïs Mitchell, rhyming like an experienced folk legend.
The Haden Triplets give yet another harmonic acapella for the following track 'Nothing Changes'. It has delicious vocal delivery and the vocal direction is extremely catchy as their vocals come to an end making way for Justin Vernon. 'If It's True' is much sadder than previous material and the reverberated piano sets the mood. The sparse drumming sounds immaculate as the cymbals echo from left speaker to right and back. Justin reads out his section with desperation, it's a cry out for help and he delivers a clear vocal with his usual style. The instrumental is almost separate from Justin's vocal but the final 30 seconds show great unitary sound as the strings work with the saddening piano.
'Papers (Hades Finds Out)' has venomous string work which sounds captivating yet horrifying. The fast paced drum bear enters as free form avant-garde guitar work and percussion plague the instrumental. Piano notes occur and the track slowly descends. It's a lovely instrumental and separates the story, giving the next track the imagery it needs. 'How Long?' has Ani DiFranco give her depressing vocal. Greg Brown answers her as the instrumental mood tells the listener to listen to what Ani and Greg are talking about. This is more of a spoken word track with imagery rather than something to be joyful and listen to on a warm Summers day. Lovely analogies are read by Greg Brown as his questions are answered by AniDiFranco.
'Epic (Part Two)' has the same vocal style as part one, but with a heavier and significantly important instrumental which sounds serious. the piano work is brilliant and works with the left sided depressing strings. The story is reaching it's climax as Justin gives yet another brilliant vocal. He's playing his part in the story well. The vocal harmonies close the track off, but they sound much more melancholy.
The tracks are no more joyful but extremely sad. 'Lover's Desire' is two minutes long and has delerious soundscapes and an impromptu guitar riff on the left side with a banjo being played on the right. 'His Kiss, The Riot' tells an agnoniigly heartfelt love story. Hades is telling Orpheus (Greg Brown is telling Justin Vernon) how to get Eurydice (Anaïs Mitchell) back, by 'walking out of the underworld a few paces ahead of her and not turn around to make sure she’s there'. The track has lovely twinkling atmosphere and Greg's vocals are extremely heavy and forefull.
'Doubt Comes In' is the second to last song and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice making their way up from the underground. The instrumental is very slow and Justin sings depserately as Mitchell answers him and explains her feelings and how he can help her, "Just keep singing". The eerie violin solo sums this track up for me. The track turns cold as the soundscapes rign out and a thumping drum beat is heard in the background. 'I Raise My Cup to Him' ends the album with Ani DiFranco and Anaïs Mitchell singing an eulogy towards Justin Vernon (Orpheus). The track is a lovely finishing track and it's pure summary just gives the album something quite thrilling, something that isnt common. This concept has been acted out by these folk artists and they've done something quite spectacular. The album finishes on a high note, ending all the bad vibes from the previous eight/nine tracks and shows memmory and rememberance to Orpheus.
When recreating a mythological story, the 'actors' need to portray emotion in their singing. On this album, Ani DiFranco, Anaïs Mitchell, Justin Vernon and Greg Brown play the main characteres and deliver their vocals, understanding the story and what their charcteres would have felt, they portray. The guitar work is especially fantastic and sounds well recorded. The compactness sound shines out as the mood changes through lyrical progress. It's a very strong album ans it has been missed out among avid music listeners. It was well recieved and argueably should have made end of year lists by the major critics.