Anonymous 4, with
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall,
(Harmonia Mundi, 2006)

For sheer, magnificent, undiluted beauty it would be hard to top Gloryland. This is a collection of American folk songs and hymns in formal, classically influenced -- but never stiff -- settings, done either solo or in harmony arrangements by the acclaimed all-female vocal group Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria Rose). Behind them are Darol Anger and Mike Marshall, brilliant multi-instrumentalists with backgrounds in a number of genres, prominently including traditional music.

Most of these tunes go back to the 19th century, a few possibly earlier. The most recent is "Green Pastures," written in the early 1960s and known to most from the memorable versions recorded by Ralph Stanley and, later, Emmylou Harris. The selections are impeccable, the bulk of them rare and obscure material which A4, Anger and Marshall clearly had to dig deeply to unearth. I am no novice in this area, but scanning the songlist for the first time, I was pleasantly taken aback to find I recognized well fewer than half of the titles. The more familiar tunes, such as "The Wagoner's Lad" and "You Fair & Pretty Ladies," are sung and arranged so interestingly -- almost as folk songs might sound sung in heaven -- that a listener may momentarily forget that he or she has heard them before.

While not quite every song has an explicitly sacred theme, in A4's handling they all shimmer with an otherworldly luminosity. They conjure up a vision of spiritual pilgrimage even in the secular narratives, with the implicit message that all of life is led under God's mysterious purposes and with every passing day, whether we know it or not, we are marching toward Gloryland. The feeling of all of this, of course, is anything but modern, more like a portal opened in time through which voices of an earlier America chant their ghostly anthems.

by Jerome Clark
25 November 2006

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