Under the Radar: Orpheus Gets a Makeover


Videos by American Songwriter

[Pictured above: Brasstronaut]

anaismitchellSomewhere between The Who’s Tommy and Sufjan Stephens’ entire body of work lies Anaïs Mitchell’s new folk opera, Hadestown (Righteous Babe). In their own particularly hesitant fashion, indie artists have been trending towards the theatrical for years now: Witness Stephens’ thematic obsessions with all 50 United States, Joanna Newsom’s whimsical harp albums and the synth-driven freak rock of Gruff Rhys’ Neon Neon, to name but a few. What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s a backlash against the digital download single, or possibly a certain nostalgia for longer, more literate works that must be digested as a whole, the sort of thing that inevitably sounds and feels better on a turntable than an iPod.

Whatever its inspiration, Hadestown is the first effort to emerge from this morass of good intention that truly holds up on both the musical and narrative level. Mitchell bases the opera on the myth of Orpheus set in a “post-apocalyptic American depression era.” Scored by Michael Chomey, Mitchell’s songs (all 20 of them) translate the timeless saga of the Big O into an enjoyably common vernacular. The vocal duties are handled by a who’s who of indie schadenfreude, including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Ani DiFranco, Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem), Greg Brown and The Haden Triplets. The excellent characterization of the vocalists carries the narrative forward, pulling the story out from the tastefully layered instrumentation. Miller is especially effective in the role of Hermes, grounding the procession with a throaty growl that invokes the dirtiest of dirt, while the chirpy rejoinders of the Haden Triplets as the Fates (of course!) constantly offer the hope of brighter possibilities in the depths of a heavy situation.

Hadestown will hit the road this spring and summer, the number of performances especially impressive given the ambition and scope of the production. Then again, given the obvious commitment to excellence displayed in the execution of the album, it should not be surprising that Mitchell and friends would undertake such a labor to help revive original American opera. While Hadestown is not quite Porgy and Bess, it is about as close as anyone has come in the last 90 years, and should be rewarded and supported in the most enthusiastic fashion.

The music of Vancouver’s Brasstronaut comes up as “Unclassifiable” in the ‘ol iTunes window, and their latest offering, Mount Chimaera (Unfamiliar Records), wastes little time earning the distinction. Reticent shoe-gazing effortlessly shades into touchy-feely yacht rock with the stroke of a hi-hat cymbal, while dissonant keyboard trinkles and horn flourishes litter confessional songscapes like so many pieces of trash blown across a pristine public park. Frontman Edo Van Breemen leads his charges through their paces with a passive/aggressive authority that belies the tyrannical quality of his name, surely one of the finest studies in rock nomenclature this century. Not surprisingly, Brasstronaut has found recent success in Iceland. Here’s to more globe hopping and toe-tapping for these nefarious Canucks.

GoodGracCovThere is something familiar and little-brotherly about Chris Otepka’s voice. On Goodness Gracious (Greyday Records), his new group The Heligoats play at being a few different types of indie band, most of them featuring lead singers bearing the name Thom or Connor. Regardless, it is fun to listen to the ‘Goats get their jollies on, not unlike seeing a bicycle operated without training wheels for the first time. It should also be remembered that youth and naïveté sometimes produce the most timeless pearls of wisdom: witness the lyric “Like a barrel full of monkeys/you are a f***load of work.” Thank you, Mr. Otepka, may your star continue to shine brightly.

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ELLIOTT SMITH > Roman Candle/From a Basement On The Hill