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The Graham Album Review #2202

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Bonny Light Horseman: Keep Me On Your Mind/See You Free

(independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/26/2024)

Folk-influenced music is seems to be having a revival in some circles. Record popularity charts oriented toward college radio have brought back the folk category for its own chart. And the field has seen a lot of worthwhile new releases from both the long-time folkies who have been making the music for decades, and emerging artists, and also members of alternative rock bands have been undertaking mostly acoustic folk-oriented side projects. This week we have a first-rate album by a folky trio of artists who have had their own respective careers. It’s the new third album by the group called Bonnie Light Horseman, titled Keep Me On Your Mind/See You Free. More on that title later.

Bonny Light Horseman’s best known member is probably Anaïs Mitchell, multi-faceted a singer-songwriter and author who won eight Tony Award for the Broadway adaptation of what was one of her early albums Hadestown. She has recorded several solo albums, including an eponymous one released in 2022. The other members of Bonny Light Horseman are Eric D. Johnson, a member of the alternative group Fruit Bats, and multi-instrumentalist and the album’s producer Josh Kaufman. The group formed in 2018 when the members were apparently separately invited to appear at a folk festival in Wisconsin. After that festival they decided to continue their association and released their debut album as a group in January 2020, which featured a number of traditional songs. Ms. Mitchell and collaborator Jefferson Hamer did an album of traditional British Isles ballads in 2013. But subsequently, Bonnie Light Horseman has been moving to more original material.

The new album got started when Ms. Mitchell and her colleagues happened to be in a genuine Irish pub in a village in County Cork. They liked the atmosphere so much that they decided to record there, including using the pub’s old upright piano and lubricating it with olive oil to keep it from creakng, as they point out, with the recording completed in a studio they used before in Upstate New York. The sounds of the Irish pub can sometimes be heard, such as a cough from the audience, and they also invited the patrons to help with backing vocals. The trio is joined by drummer JT Bates, and bassist Cameron Ralston, who have worked with Bonny Light Horseman before.

The group did a lot of writing, enough perhaps for two albums, but in the end, both were combined into a 20-track 63-minute opus that is divided into two titled halves, Keep Me In Your Mind and See You Free. But there is not any particular difference between the two titled halves. It’s all first-rate folk influenced original material, jointly written by Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman, most of it consisting of love songs of different stripes, and different ways of looking at things. Holding it together are the always charming vocals of Anaïs Mitchell, and the almost similarly pitched tenor vocals of Eric D. Johnson. Though some of the tracks were recorded essentially live in the Irish pub, the musical accompaniment, has a sparse but musically sophisticated sound. The tracks can range from ruminating to cranked up rock with fuzzed out guitar.

Opening is a the title track of the first half, Keep Me on Your Mind, with fairly self-explanatory lyrics, and a wonderfully atmospheric accompaniment. <<>>

With a more acoustic sound is Love Take It Easy. Ms. Mitchell and Johnson alternate on the vocals. <<>>

The lengthiest track on the album is called Old Dutch, which features some vocals by Kaufman, who does not sing very much on the album. The title comes from the fact that Kaufman had made a voice memo, recorded in a church and titled it Old Dutch, and the three members developed it into a song, with a good dynamic ebb and flow. <<>>

With a more traditional folk sound is Rock the Cradle with Johnson on banjo. The Irish pub chorus provides the backing vocals. <<>>

Eric D. Johnson provides the lead vocal on The Clover from the album’s second half, one of the more electric sounding tracks, another song examining relationships, and their evolution. <<>>

One of the more introspective tracks, both musically and lyrically is called Into the O, with “O” meaning the ocean, metaphorically. <<>>

Speak to Me Muse is one of the more interesting pieces. It reflects Ms. Mitchell’s own personal style. There are both added horns and the Irish pub chorus. <<>>

The album closes with the title track of its second half, See You Free. It’s another of those songs exploring different facets of a relationship, and another of the more electric tracks on the album. <<>>

Bonny Light Horseman’s new essentially-double-album in one, Keep Me On Your Mind/See You Free is a most enjoyable recording of thoughtful songs tastefully performed by Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman. It’s the third studio release by what has been called a contemporary folk supergroup, with each of the members prominently involved in other projects. The generous 18-song album – with two little non-musical sequences – mainly looks at that evergreen songwriting subject relationships, but avoids the trite. Each song has something to say, while musically shining especially bright.

Our grade for audio quality is about an “A-minus.” While the dynamic range could have been a little better, the sound is clean and punchy, with a nice sheen, even on some of the material that was recorded in the Irish pub.

Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell has been a favorite of mine for some time now, with her varied career running from doing traditional British Isles folk to creating a multiple Tony-winning Broadway musical. Her latest collaboration with Eric D. Johnson of the alternative band the Fruit Bats, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman has yielded a real gem.

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