The four women of Anonymous 4 are not the first early music ensemble to release an album of American religious music, but they bring to American Angels their characteristic precise harmony singing and investigative musical spirit. American Angels is largely devoted to shape-note hymnody, a tradition so called because the note heads in its printed hymnals may have square, triangle, or diamond shapes in addition to the usual round ones. The shapes helped rural singers learn to read music, and on several numbers Anonymous 4 follows the curious traditional practice of singing the hymn through in solmization syllables (fa-sol-la-mi) before adding the words on the second go-round. The shape-note tradition gave America "Amazing Grace" and several more of its best hymns.
Travel down Southern back roads far enough and you can still find shape-note singers, also known as Sacred Harp singers after the name of their favorite "tunebook." Listeners who know the tradition may be nonplussed by Anonymous 4's ethereal sound, for regular shape-note singers belt out tunes at an unchanging maximum volume, an approach that a piece like "The Morning Trumpet" seems to demand. Yet there's much to be said for Anonymous 4's approach. Shape-note hymnody, which migrated down the Appalachian spine from the Northeast, features harmonies that would be considered wrong by traditional European standards; its harmonic practices had rural English and ultimately medieval origins. Anonymous 4's singing lets you feel every open fifth, every stark interval.
In addition to two versions of "Amazing Grace," "Wayfaring Stranger," and "Shall We Gather at the River" are other favorites that make the album enjoyable for general listeners even as Anonymous 4 backs up what it does with extensive research. Once again, this remarkable group has managed to take up unfamiliar material and deliver a compelling musical experience.