In 1963, “Wall of Sound” record producer Phil Spector had a can’t-miss idea: have his stable of artists, including The Crystals, The Ronettes and Darlene Love, cover Christmas classics such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland.” It was a great idea but for one snafu: The album, “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector,” was released Nov. 22, 1963 – the day President Kennedy was assassinated. It took years for those recordings to find their seasonal audience.
There are artists today in the same muddle, having brought out great work at the beginning of this year only to find it drop in the middle of this pandemic, when almost nothing is functioning as it normally would. That’s surely the case with the new, self-titled debut album by the trio Bonny Light Horseman.
Even in the best of times it was something we easily could have missed, because it is described as indie folk music, a phrase in which only one of the three words, “music,” seems even remotely descriptive. As it turns out, some of its 10 songs are not only extraordinarily good but are also impossible to pigeonhole.
The first cut, the eponymous “Bonny Light Horseman,” is derived from a Scottish ballad that seems to date from the early 19th century, a lament for a lover gone to a war. Here, for example, is Siobhan Miller, said to be “one of Scotland’s foremost singers,” performing “Bonnie Light Horseman”: it is dutiful, it is serviceable, it is perfectly attractive – if you go for that sort of thing.
And here is Bonny Light Horseman’s version. There are two big differences off the bat. Bonny Light Horseman’s singer Anaïs Mitchell does things with her voice that are anything but dutiful or traditional, and are enchantingly strange; and she and the band have chosen to begin their version with Napoleon Bonaparte, the villain, as though they’re nailing a bill of particulars to his door; making a new protest:
Oh, Napoleon Bonaparte, you’re the cause of my woe
Since my bonny light horseman in the war, he did go.
Bonny Light Horseman’s “The Roving” seems to be derived from the song “The Irish Girl.” The latter sounds centuries old and likely is. Here is Shirley Collins, a renowned English folksinger and revivalist, performing it. It is fine. But Mitchell’s version with Bonny Light Horseman is stratospheric, from the acoustic instrumentation that puts one in mind of Pink Floyd, and the spectral percussion, to the pristine recording and room sound itself – and to Mitchell, whose pealingly pure alto soars, making new hooks from old steel. She makes new feelings. “The songs feel like ours, but they’re not ours,” she said on the band’s website. “We worked on them and they feel like an authentic expression of us, but we’re also reenacting ritual.”
It is not too much to say how fortunate we are to be in a world with Mitchell, who won two 2019 Tony Awards for her musical “Hadestown,” based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce, and who also separately has recorded the Child Ballads of England and Scotland. Not everyone gets to live in the times of an interpreter of legend who makes the legends new again. If this is indie folk, give us more, please.
It looks as though whatever touring shows Bonny Light Horseman had scheduled have been canceled, until July, but at least it has given us some ravishing music for shut-ins.