Her voice is soft and sweet, her guitar work deft and evocative, but Anaïs Mitchell is a songwriting storyteller first and foremost. Robbed of a gift for melody and poetry, Mitchell would probably (and may yet) write some tremendous novels.
The power of Taken by Trees lies in understatement. Victoria Bergsman sings almost as if she doesn't care — but that contrast to almost every other singer I know is what makes me hear her words, and grants me space to think about her emotions. It's almost as if she etches the lines of a song and leaves listeners to fill in the rest.
Martha Wainwright's songs examine uncomfortable moments and life experiences gone wrong, but as she acknowledges in between songs at this Tiny Desk Concert, she often has to fudge her own life story to make the details more unsettling. ("Take everything with a grain of salt," she says, "except the good stuff.") What she does is the opposite of sugarcoating: She roughs up life's smooth spots, then digs her fingertips into the cracks that form.
Ben Gibbard has spent so much time at the head of various bands — Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service, All-Time Quarterback — that it's easy to forget how well his sweetly brainy songs work in a solo acoustic setting. His melodies are sturdy enough to withstand skeletal arrangements, and though his persona is unassuming by nature, he remains a charismatic and charming live performer.