Anonymous 4 / Bruce Molsky

1865: Songs of Hope & Home

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American vocal group Anonymous 4 was founded to explore medieval music and has worked mostly within repertory of that time period. But its field of endeavor has broadened in a fan shape as its career has developed, including contemporary works and, toward the end of its career, a focus on the music of its native country. The present album forms the material for their last tour. Released in early 2015, it commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. The program consists of music that was "in the air" in 1865, although not necessarily composed or published then; the songs date back as far as 1823 in the case of Home, Sweet Home, a seemingly quintessentially American song that actually comes from a British opera. Some deal with the war itself, but, as is usual in wartime music, not all do. Civil War songs constitute an amazing example of creative efflorescence in response to crisis, but to put them across convincingly today is not an easy task, with pale academic art-song performances among the few available. Contemporary bluegrass musicians seem to do best with them, and Anonymous 4 moves in that direction here with the inclusion of accompaniment (on vocals, banjo, guitar, and fiddle) by bluegrass musician Bruce Molsky. This enables the group to present a variety of related settings, from a cappella to different instrumental-vocal combinations; there's no attempt at an "authentic" sound, but the scale is right. Reactions to these performances is likely to be quite individual. Those who enjoy Anonymous 4's vocal sounds will likely be intrigued to hear it in this new light, and Molsky's low-key but versatile accompaniment works well. Others may find these readings bloodless, in music that depended on direct emotional impact and in many cases on an abundance of sentiment, the bedrock of American musical expression. Anonymous 4, in any case, deserves credit for continuing to break new ground even as they prepare to close up shop.

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