Both supergroups and archival reinterpretation projects have their pitfalls. When singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, the Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, and producer/guitarist Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, the National, and more) came together at a couple of festivals and hatched a plan to revisit traditional folk songs, it could have been a pleasant enough diversion. Instead, the trio (along with some collaborators) merged into something much more noteworthy, creating a distinct sound on their self-titled debut that turned their treasure trove into a sort of instant classic of its own.
The group thinks old and writes new. They don’t simply cover, say, Woody Guthrie and mix in some novel instrumentation. Some of the tracks here have roots a few centuries old. The group, rather than pull out their lutes and flutes, find ways to make each piece feel current, either in the music (think some of the best of modern indie-folk) or in slight twists to performance or arrangements. Bonny Light Horseman, then, sounds less like a one-off trick and more like a timeless entry into the tradition.
The album opens with its best cut, titled, of course, “Bonny Light Horseman”. The track, like most of the disc, feels relatively spare, but here the group uses a surprising amount of instruments, led by a tasteful harmonica part. The work hinges on Mitchell’s vocal delivery. Given the restraint shown throughout the album, Mitchell’s slight strain as she suffers the loss of her “own true love” drives the emotion home. If she blames Napoleon for this death, the complaint lingers to accuse any war leader from any homefront.
It’s not just Mitchell’s singing that carries that track, though, as Johnson’s harmonies add strong support. The two interact like long-time collaborators. When Johnson takes the lead on the next rack, both Mitchell and Kaufmann come in with spot-on backing parts. The group manages to sound both careful and well-rehearsed and utterly relaxed. The sequencing of the album lets the relaxed folksiness serve as a foundation for more volatile expressions. “The Roving” switches traditional gender roles while Mitchell hits just the right beats for a song of dissipating love. Johnson and Mitchell sing “Blackwaterside” as a duet, the subtle performances revealing a range of emotions, and Mitchell’s characters willful naivete in the closing.
The album takes an odd turn near the end, as Justin Vernon appears for a guest vocal on “Bright Morning Stars”. The harmonies suggest old-time Appalachian music, which is fine enough in itself but marks the one time that any of these tracks sound like something other than a very current rendition by a particular trio. Bonny Light Horseman (the album but hopefully not the group) ends with more true love talk on “10,000 Miles”, a fitting song of departure and grandiose romance packed into the form of a folk song. As stellar as Mitchell sounds, the song reminds us that the harmonies and the collective thinking are the true stars of the record. Bonny Light Horseman marks its supergroup status in reserved performances that prioritize song and group, and it makes old songs into visions worth new consideration.