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Review: Anna & Elizabeth, The Invisible Comes to Us

Warning: The music on this album may take you by surprise. Don’t panic. Anna & Elizabeth will guide you on the journey.

The Invisible Comes to Us opens with the duo of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle singing “Jeano” unaccompanied in an echo chamber. As the song moves on, their voices are joined by synthesizers and the sound of chirping birds on a loop. You might think, maybe this is an aberration, as the electronic aural environment falls away and it’s just the voice and guitar of “Black Eyed Susan.” But once again, the plunges into a strange ethereal soundscape.

By the time you get to the end of “Irish Patriot,” you’ve been led into a sonic maze built on layers of keyboards, Moog bass, vocoder, mellotron, pump organ and added sound samples from field recordings.

Anna & Elizabeth built their reputation on haunting harmonies and illustrating their music and stories with “crankies,” an old storytelling art form where drawings on long scrolls and spools create a primitive moving picture. Their music fit nicely into the old-time realm, accompanying their ballads with guitar, banjo and fiddle.

Released in March by Smithsonian Folkways, The Invisible Comes to Us is the duo’s third full-length album. Whereas their 2013 debut Sun to Sun and their 2015 self-titled album were rooted in faithful renditions of traditional ballads and fiddle tunes, Anna & Elizabeth started down this more experimental path in 2017 with the release of a two-song EP, “Hop High”/”Here in the Vineyard.”

The addition of synthesizers and a small crew of supporting musicians on drums, pedal steel, woodwinds and hardanger d’amore may seem shocking to those familiar with their earlier music. However, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle haven’t abandoned their past. They’re just reinterpreting it.

With the exception of “Woman Is Walking,” the duo’s only original song on the album, Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle culled the songs on The Invisible Comes to Us from archival collections in their their home states of Vermont and Virginia. The Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College provided six of the songs.

The album title comes from an essay by poet Tung-Hui Hu, called “Invisible Green.” The front cover was photographed by John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers. The duo joined up with multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis, who co-produced the album and is credited with playing most of the electronic instruments.

The vinyl edition of The Invisible Comes to Us is presented in a handsome gatefold cover with photos and annotation about the songs and sources. The LP format also illustrates how cohesive the album is as a whole, with each side seeming to start with a more straightforward song before spiraling into its musical deviations and returning to a more traditional arrangement and feel.

A couple of standouts on Side One include “Ripest of Apples” and “John of Hazelgreen.” The former represents the biggest foot-stomper on the album, vocals and drums driving the rhythm as guitar and synthesizers create an eerie atmosphere. While the droning soundscape weaves in and out throughout the album, “John of Hazelgreen” has a back-to-basics feel. Here, the banjo is at its most prevalent, while the addition of flute and clarinet make the song feel more of a piece with the rest of the record.

Side Two seems to have through-narrative about a woman who is assaulted by a sailor on the seashore. The songs fit together and present some of the most challenging music on the album.

There are a number instances of foreshadowing and callbacks during this mini-suite, especially on “Woman is Walking” and “By the Shore,” which include distinct vocal references to each other.

“Virginia Rambler” tells the bulk of the story, but the arrangement helps illustrate the emotional weight of the song, opening with a more traditional feel with LaPrelle’s vocals backed by drums. The singing sounds immediate and present at first, but then becomes distorted, as if drifting away, while the woman in the story is accosted by the titular rambler.

“By the Shore and “Farewell to Erin” are perhaps the most experimental moments of the album. The two tracks have a modular feel, mixing spoken-word narration and singing, as overbearing synthesizers create a disorienting sense of foreboding and suspense. Combined, the tracks wage a ten-minute assault on the auditory senses. Voices overlap and cut in and out. A man takes a woman into his arms against her will. The sensation of listening is as disturbing as the story presented.

Finally, “Mother in the Graveyard” brings the storyline to a transcendent finale and marks the climax of the entire album. It’s as if all of the musical experimentation that came before has come together in shimmering harmony. It’s a true highlight.

The Invisible Comes to Us closes with “Margaret,” which uses samples from scratchy field recordings of Margaret Shipman singing snippets of the opener, “Jeano,” bookending the album. Appropriately, the voice of folksong collector Helen Hartness Flanders also can be heard on the track, introducing Shipman.

Those expecting more of the same from Anna & Elizabeth’s earlier albums may be taken aback by this album. Compared to the sparse arrangements of their previous releases, The Invisible Comes to Us is a jarring departure. However, the foundation of their music remains in tact with their beautiful harmonies and devotion to traditional music. Those willing to go on this sonic journey will be greatly rewarded with an innovative concept album that breaks the boundaries of tradition and tells the story of love and loss, tragedy and resilience.

The invisible Comes to Us may be challenging to listen to at times, but the duo’s intertwining voices guide the listener through these twisting and inventive arrangements. The songs bleed into one another and present traditional music in a surprising new light. Through it all, the harmonies of Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle hold it all together. It’s as if Anna & Elizabeth are showing the listener that this music is hardy and capable of holding so much more than it has ever been allowed. There is a boldness here that is often lacking in recordings by musicians who are too beholden to what came before. Anna & Elizabeth are reverent to their sources without being restricted in their interpretation of the music.

Track Listing:
  1. Jeano
  2. Black Eyed Susan
  3. Ripest of Apples
  4. Irish Patriot
  5. John of Hazelgreen
  6. Woman is Walking
  7. Virginia Rambler
  8. By the Shore
  9. Farewell to Erin
  10. Mother in the Graveyard
  11. Margaret


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