Ever since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack became a surprise multimillion-seller in 2000, American spirituals, trad folk and country-gospel have gotten a steady stream of attention. One of the more intriguing examples was 2004's American Angels by Anonymous 4. For two decades, the female a cappella quartet had specialized in renditions of medieval vocal music that were both creative and respectful, but on Angels, a collection of 18th- and 19th-century American hymns, they sounded like a Ren Faire mated with a southern gospel revival.
The members of Anonymous 4 come from a rigorous classical background, but the music of Gloryland — revival songs, gospel songs and folk hymns — doesn't need trained vocalizing; in a spiritual, especially one from the Appalachian tradition, it's the emotion that matters most. These are vivacious, full-throttle performances, though the 4's a cappella renditions of songs like "The Wagoner's Lad" still come across a tad stiff. The first number, "I'm on My Journey Home," a song from the Sacred Harp tradition, seems lacking precisely because it's so perfectly sung — I missed the "off" notes so favored by that most democratic of singing traditions. The group's impeccable diction on "The Lost Girl" and "Merrick" doesn't seem to jibe so well with the material, either.
I hate to sound like a prude, because this is indeed a lovely recording. It's a tough row to hoe — how to do this material justice with classically trained voices more accustomed to centuries-old sacred choral music? The songs that work best mix a more understated vocal style with subtle accompaniment on mandolin, guitar or violin (courtesy of virtuosos Darol Anger and Mike Marshall). "The Mercy Seat," for example, is a lovely thing, pure and simple in its light crossover of acoustic folk and vocal mastery. Rather than over-singing the tune, they update it slightly, and make it their own. Here's hoping their next foray into this fertile musical field is more like this.