Anna & Elizabeth showed up in 2015 with a self-titled album full of old-timey goodness, backed by Appalachian music hero Alice Gerrard. (Their band name was a clear nod to Hazel & Alice.) That disc established Anna & Elizabeth as a bright light in old-time music, like a relic from a forgotten past, with a pure, irony-free allegiance to the songs.
Meanwhile, on this year’s The Invisible Comes to Us, the pair has dug into the archive of their home states—Virginia and Vermont. In a fit of creative fireworks, they have delivered a collection of music that captures the spirits of the songs, even if that means occasionally veering from traditional song forms.
There is a history in folk music, of artists deciding to either adhere fiercely to the traditional aesthetic or to veer in strange, new directions, as though any interpretation of an old ballad can only be done one way or the other. But here, Anna & Elizabeth straddle that divide, approaching their selections with traditionalist impulses and strange contemporary curiosities, all at once. One gets the impression this duo did their damnedest to put into a recording what it was the song made them feel when they first discovered it.
“Irish Patriot” is a strong example, with its noise break at the end, ala Laurie Anderson. It begins as a foggy aural experience, then gives way to a more direct interpretation of verses. Finally, as if the singer has fallen through time into the song, the instruments spin into somewhat of a black hole of dissonance and fuzz, with no resolution to be had.
Another shining moment comes with “Farewell to Erin,” which stretches its verses out so long, the lyrics are almost unfollowable, not that it matters. The arrangement does all the heavy lifting to communicate the longing and sadness of leaving one’s homeland for somewhere far across the sea. We listeners are led by the ears into the unknown, which is what the lyrics are about to begin with.
As the disc unfolds, Anna & Elizabeth’s daring creative instincts support each song, proving the one unifying thread between these different musical traditions. It helps that both New England and Virginia are full of ghosts from some of America’s darkest beginnings. Some of the arrangements on this album feel like we are being pulled into the haunted rooms where these songs were first sung. Bows creak against fiddle strings and avant-garde noise grips our ears as the singers’ soft, alluring voices pull us through the weirdness of their interpretations.
These artists have transformed old songs the way one might be inclined to approach classical or jazz music, a fact which only elevates the traditions from the realm of folksy nostalgia to complex art music.
The result is a collection that honors the tradition at the same time as it honors the creative aplomb of its performers. This is a deeply imaginative, beautifully realized artistic statement, reminding us that folk songs don’t have to be frozen in time, but are perhaps better served as doorknobs to the past. If you turn and enter through them, perhaps you’ll feel a bit disoriented at first. But sit with them awhile and they will show you how much we, the folk, haven’t really changed.