In a press release accompanying the debut album from the folk trio Bonny Light Horseman, singer and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell says, "The folk singer Martin Carthy once said, 'You can't break these songs that are hundreds if not thousands of years old; you're not gonna hurt them by messing with them.'" In a way, that sums up the guiding concept behind Bonny Light Horseman, though they don't mess with traditional folk songs so much as they give them a stylish makeover. Mitchell, the creator of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, is teamed on Bonny Light Horseman with Eric D. Johnson, leader of the indie folk act Fruit Bats, and producer and instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, who has worked with the National, Craig Finn, and Josh Ritter. Rather than write original material, the trio cast traditional folk, country, and spiritual tunes in a new light by marrying them to arrangements that reflect the spare but resonant atmospherics of contemporary indie folk. In short, if you've wondered what the Child Ballads would sound like as performed by Bon Iver, Bonny Light Horseman deliver a reasonable approximation on their debut. (The comparison is fitting as the LP was released through Justin Vernon's 37d03d collective.) These interpretations favor the simple beauty of the melodies, though the vocals, lovely as they are, frequently buff off the sharp edges of the ballads with their slight sweetness, and even though the efforts to give these songs a modern tone is subtle and respectful, they also rob the tales of a bit of their strength by stripping them of their historical context. The result is an LP whose craft is pleasing and executed with tremendous care, but doesn't make the songs sound like the remarkable and enduring classics they are. Instead, Bonny Light Horseman resembles a somewhat above-average indie folk effort, not at all bad but not of lasting impact. Maybe they should have messed with this stuff a bit more.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming