Folk trio Bonny Light Horseman deliver a sophomore delight
Rolling Golden Holy by Bonny Light Horseman
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Bonny Light Horseman‘s tour is currently booked until early April and doesn’t yet bring them to Canada. You can always ask them by going to their website.


Folk trio deliver a sophomore delight

After they first met in 2018 the musical veterans in Bonny Light Horseman soon set to making a well received, 10-song collection of traditional folk songs – with a twist. Some of the tunes were centuries old, but the trio of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman gave them a subtle and sure modern polish without losing the originals’ essence. The eponymously titled collection received a Grammy Award nomination in 2021 for Best Folk album.

On their second outing they repeat the trick – beautifully – in reverse: Rolling Golden Holy respects the lyrical and thematic folk traditions of the first record but all 10 songs are new and penned by the trio.

What shines on the album is the effortless interplay between the experienced players. Mitchell and Johnson’s voices weave together like twins. The group sounds like three parts of the same musical mind. Kaufman’s production is flawless. The unique and common vision that informed the first record finds a through line in the second.

“The first album was old stories made to sound new,” Johnson, the singer/songwriter and leader of the band Fruit Bats, told Paste magazine. “This new album is new stories made to sound old. They’re both like ancient love songs, but also like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie.”

“Why do we go back?” Mitchell asks. “Because it’s too inspiring not to. I can stand in my shoes and sing this song of longing for a lost lover, and someone did it a hundred years ago and someone did it a thousand years ago and someone else will do it in a hundred years. When we approached this record, we wanted to reach forward and write new material, but we wanted these songs to be in conversation with the first record.”

“We never wanted the old songs to sound like a research project,” Kaufman explained to Paste. “We wanted them to feel like we were singing our own texts. Even though 80% of the texts for the first record were traditional, and 80% of the texts for the new record were us, the personalities are the same. It does feel like it’s the same characters in both albums, and they’re speaking through us.”

Hearing this sophomore effort is a delight despite a few shortcomings. The songs don’t equal the calibre of the first record’s folk standards – definitely a tough reach. And the similarity in overall sound between the two collections asks for a bit more diversity.

There are signs that the group is comfortable drawing on a broader palette. For example Kaufman’s production subtly inserts synths and drum machines on the song Fleur de Lis. Sweetbread opens with and features a banjo and saxophone combo. Album closer Cold Rain and Snow foregrounds a quietly searing electric guitar plus flourishes of electric organ. These musical markers portend future treasures from this talented bunch.

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22 October 2022


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On their second album as a trio, Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman build fresh narratives from the fabled history of folk music

By Amanda Wicks / Pitchfork

On Bonny Light Horseman’s 2020 self-titled debut, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats), and producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman moved their modern weft across the warp of folk traditions past. Borrowing pieces from old-time songs, their interplay between convention and innovation could have ended as a one-off project, especially after the collaboration earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. But the kismet of their creative commune seemed too good not to keep exploring, so they set about writing original songs. Their second album, Rolling Golden Holy, imagines what contemporary stories might look like when framed in the Anglo-American folk tradition. Entwining themes from broadsides and British ballads, musical styles from Appalachia, and touches of modern production, they deliver new tales, new colors, and new patterns.

In 1957, folk scholar George Malcolm Laws classified broadside ballads into topics like “Lovers’ Disguises and Tricks,” “Faithful Lovers,” and “Unfaithful Lovers.” While these categories apply to plenty of genres, Bonny Light Horseman delight in building fresh narratives from the fabled history of folk music. The duet “Comrade Sweetheart” evokes an early 20th century setting, when the blue-collar struggle for justice made its way into songs from Woody Guthrie and later Pete Seeger. Johnson and Mitchell pledge their love and fidelity, promising to care for one another in their fight for larger causes.

The songs on Rolling Golden Holy trace a variety of love stories, with Mitchell and Johnson trading off leads like they do perspectives. “Gone by Fall” reflects on love that will end when the seasons change. The song’s brightly plucked guitar contrasts the sorrow ruminating at its center. Johnson takes lead vocals, while Mitchell’s soft touches add flourishes of nostalgic sweetness, as though the present were already a potent memory. “Exile” declares grandiose passions in an effort to win back a lover. Johnson’s and Mitchell’s voices plait in and around one another. “You know I’d fly right into the eye of the hurricane for you,” they sing against a fluttering banjo, while Mike Lewis’ bass and JT Bates’ drums juxtapose that soaring interplay with a grounded heft.

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