(Righteous Babe, CD)
Vermont-based folksinger Anaïs Mitchell  may be signed to Ani Difranco's Righteous Babe label, but don't assume you've got her pegged. While both women have a knack for crafting fine-tuned confessionals, Mitchell eschews DiFranco's overt political leanings and favors a more subtle approach on her latest, The Brightness. Actually, Mitchell has more in common with Americana luminaries such as Patti Griffin and Gillian Welch than with her label boss. To me, that's hardly a bad thing.
n addition to her songwriting faculties, Mitchell possesses a voice that's childlike yet versatile, reminiscent of Julie Miller or even Joanna Newsom at her most tuneful.
The Brightness' zenith arrives early. In the final moments of opener "Your Fonder Heart," Mitchell takes the lead in a poignant three-part harmony that rests on a blanket of acoustic guitar, banjo, saxophone and hand drum. It was arresting the first time I heard it, and several listens later, it still gives me goose bumps.
Although the remainder of The Brightness doesn't quite pack the emotional punch of its curtain raiser, there's still plenty to love. "Changer" showcases Mitchell's aptitude for carving out lines that are simultaneously simple and heartrending: "If I can't keep it, at least let me call it by name / That was called falling / This is called pain," she sings.
And there's enough variation to keep things interesting. The soothing interplay of the guitar and banjo on "Shenandoah" wouldn't sound entirely out of place on indie hero Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans.
"Namesake" could be an homage to Difranco, with Mitchell declaring, "I've worn out all of your records / I've torn out page after page / I've lain with the shadows you threw when you danced with the bright-colored lights of the stage." Hammond organ and baritone sax buttress her words, exuding a spectral elegance not normally heard in acoustic ditties.
Slight imperfections keep The Brightness from ranking alongside Welch's Time (The Revelator) or Griffin's Impossible Dream. Mitchell's sentiments occasionally sound precious or contrived, and in her less inspired moments she falls back on genre clichés.
But given The Brightness' best bits, there's every reason to believe that Mitchell has a magnum opus in her. DiFranco likely thinks so, or else she wouldn't have signed her. Catch the promising young chanteuse at her CD release concert on Tuesday, February 13 at Higher Ground.