Anna & Elizabeth: Sun to Sun (self-released, 2013) and Anna & Elizabeth (Free Dirt Records, 2015)

First two records by this awesome duo of “new young fogies.” Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are, individually, known as outstanding artists and activists within the old-time music community; working together, they attain some profoundly magical chemistry that both honors history AND totally explodes whatever artificial constraints one might imagine “old-time music” has around it. (And as anyone who’s been to Clifftop or Mt. Airy knows well, such boundaries are pretty apt to disappear in the wee hours anyway.)

Sun to Sun is the more conventional of the two, emphasizing relatively straightforward renderings of a wide-ranging selection of rural songs and ballads, with a couple of instrumental numbers in the mix for good measure. (Their fiddle-and-banjo rendering of Hobart Smith’s “Pateroller” f-ing SLAYS.) But closer examination reveals they’re drawing on some less-than-common sources — multiple songs each learned and adapted from Texas Gladden (southwest VA) and Addie Graham (eastern KY), two female singers who’ve not received the same level of attention as male peers — and their decisions about arrangements and harmony are really personal and distinctive, with lots and lots of space and breath and changes in color. Also included is a video of one of their “crankie” performances — a song/ballad accompanied by a handmade, hand-cranked scroll that visually tells the story. Really, really good.

Anna & Elizabeth is simultaneously more ambitious and more focused, with the pair joined by several guests; their source material ranges across time and the American landscape of song, and they approach it with a freedom and joy of discovery that’s totally palpable. Standout (to me) “Greenwood Sidey” melds a haunting, centuries-old ballad fragment (sung with an emotional detachment that is even more haunting) with asynchronous guitar strumming that grows increasingly dissonant as the story reaches its cruel climax; nearly-as-good “Orfeo” does a similar trick with uilleann pipes. Elsewhere, seemingly more straightforward folk songs and hymns like “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Don’t Want to Die in the Storm,” and “Goin’ Across the Mountain” are given an intriguing new cast through inventive harmonies and pacing; on several of these, they’re joined by Alice Gerrard, who fills out the texture beautifully. (They return the honor with a duo take on “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” a song Alice recorded in the ‘70s with her late musical partner Hazel Dickens; Anna & Elizabeth’s version is sparse, heartfelt, and devastating .) And even the simpler numbers, like “Little Black Train” and “Trouble,” are taken on with creativity and propulsion. Really, this is just an overwhelmingly fantastic album. They’ve got a new one coming out on Smithsonian Folkways soon; I can’t wait to hear what quantum leaps they’ve made in the last couple of years.

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