Graded on a Curve:
Marisa Anderson,
Traditional and Public Domain Songs

The upcoming record from Portland, OR-based guitarist Marisa Anderson is slated to hit stores through the auspices of Thrill Jockey, but hey, don’t let’s overlook the nonce. Her 2013 LP Traditional and Public Domain Songs is getting a worthy reissue, available digitally on November 17 with the LP to follow on December 10. Initially released by Grapefruit Records, this vinyl edition comes courtesy of her frequent partners at the Mississippi label; they’ve given it a new sleeve, a fresh sequence, and two additional tracks.

Although Anderson had played and recorded prior, notably in the Dolly Ranchers, her full-length solo debut emerged in 2006. Holiday Motel is diverse, indeed featuring appealing slices of contempo folk and even a cut mildly reminiscent of the Georgia-sung moments of Yo La Tengo, but even at this early juncture, the focus is on guitar prowess that’s already substantial.

Some sources date her follow-up to 2009, others to 2011, but whenever it came out, the contents document a major stride forward. Alongside the abovementioned qualities, Holiday Motel resides comfortably in a post-coffeehouse zone, but The Golden Hour’s solo guitar sans vocals approach is a considerably deeper affair. Both discs share elements connected to John Fahey, but as demonstrated by the plugged-in, expansive atmospheres of The Golden Hour, she was in no way a mere copyist.

2013’s Mercury retained the solo no vox method, and like its predecessor, was issued on wax by the Oregonian label and record store Mississippi (the CDs came out via Important). This connection, clearly geographical, is only strengthened by the trend-averse, historical inclination they share, and of all the records in her discography, Traditional and Public Domain Songs fits easiest into Mississippi’s highly appealing mode of cultural excavation. This makes its delayed entry into their catalog all the sweeter.

Like Bill Orcutt’s A History of Every One, Anderson’s LP is a deep plunge into the American Songbook. Orcutt largely made his choices based upon ubiquity (and/or banality), but Anderson’s selections plainly derive from a love of the blues, gospel, and folksong in general; the reissue opens with a reading of the worker’s song “Bread and Roses” that’s both pretty and sharply intense.

Unlike Orcutt, Anderson doesn’t move into the deep weeds of abstraction here, though neither is reverence her bag. During “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” she extends the gospel blues flavor often applied to the source without succumbing to cliché or falling under the stylistic thrall of a prior recorded example. Just as astutely, she eschews the mournful solemnity that often surrounds the gospel cornerstone “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” opting instead for relaxed fingerpicking.

Still, there’s a healthy amount of bite amongst the melodiousness, which is a welcome thing. The amp-burn and aggressiveness of technique rise markedly in “Pretty Polly,” with its raw progression of notes magnifying Anderson’s desire for reconfiguration, an aura quickly contrasted by the contemplative “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the gradual appearance of bluesy slide.

“Hard Times Come Again No More,” an oft-recorded tune that’s credited to Stephen Foster, showcases melody gliding atop a sweet cloud of hovering electricity. Succinctly, there are moments amid Anderson’s handling of traditional songs that could rile the narrow view of traditionalists, but she follows her dip into Foster’s book with a clean-picked rumination on “Amazing Grace” (alongside “Bread and Roses” the second of this reissue’s new tracks) that’s likely to soothe even the most strident of sticklers.

It’s Anderson’s decision to tackle “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that perhaps gets nearest to the models Orcutt chose for reconfiguration. Her treatment of the song is recognizable, but not forthrightly so, as she transforms it through a combination of Eastern-tinged psych and American Primitive elements. From there, she moves into another civil war song, “Bella Ciao” dating to the Italian Civil War of 1943-’45, with its subsequent status as an anti-fascist anthem pairing nicely with “Bread and Roses” and providing the album with a sort of reset heading into “Uncloudy Day.”

Her interpretation of that gospel chestnut can be fairly assessed as singular, though Anderson does favor ripples of guitar sustain that can be traced back to Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who famously cut the already aged tune as patriarch of the Staple Singers back in ’56. A tender reading of “Farther Along” intensifies a gospel focus that, save for a cascading (rather than anthemic) “Johnny I Hardly Knew You,” carries through to the disc’s finale. Penultimately, there’s the meditative “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and then a sprightly picked “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

If one is thinking of Traditional and Public Domain Songs as an extension of the Old, Weird America, that’s not wrong; in fact, Anderson opened her side of a 2015 split LP with fellow guitarist Tashi Dori with a combo take of “The House Carpenter” and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” But as last year’s Into the Light illustrates, she surely shouldn’t be lumped into any boilerplate corral of New Weirdness either. Overall, she’s just a damn fine guitarist, and her creative searching is nowhere more in evidence than on this expanded and reshuffled LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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