Folksingers Tom Paxton and Anne Hills have performed together on and off since the early 80s, but until Under American Skies, released last year on Appleseed, they’d never cut an album as a duo. Skies is dominated by left-leaning populist anthems, some borrowed from the “folk movement” of the 60s and 70s and others original (either Paxton or Hills had a hand in eight of the fourteen songs); the duo’s singing is supported by airy fingerpicking, muted piano arpeggios, and occasional rhythm-of-the-road brush percussion. In the wrong hands such righteous fare can slide into painful ingenuousness, but the disarming combination of Paxton’s weary rasp and Hills’s sparkling, bell-like lilt helps them strike the right balance of worldly wisdom and childlike optimism. On “There Goes the Mountain” Paxton imagines the land as a living thing, using deft metaphors to decry the ravages of strip mining (“Bleeding in mud slides, robbed of its insides / Prey to the skills of the cruel engineers”); on the title tune he and Hills flirt with sloganeering in the choruses (“When we ended slavery / We all went free”), but their verses–which tell the story of a woman who kills her would-be rapist, only to be executed for his murder–plunge relentlessly forward, driven by graphic detail and keen outrage. Unfortunately some of the older material hasn’t aged well: Paxton’s “Clarissa Jones” might’ve had history on its side in 1967, but these days two white folkies singing about a ghetto kid “payin’ his dues” sound embarrassingly naive. And Bob Gibson’s “Well, Well, Well,” a faux gospel rave-up written in the late 50s, comes off like an awkward piece of musical blackface. On the other hand, Paxton and Hills deliver Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday”–written a year after the notorious Birmingham church bombing of 1963–with a mixture of harrowing grief and unbowed faith. And on Paxton’s late-70s tune “Pandora’s Box” they make something beautiful out of lyrics about private misdeeds and painful guilt–Hills manages to warble lines like “Not at all convinced / To go on living / No place to go / No excuse to stay” as if she were singing an uplifting hymn. Saturday, May 4, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Irene Young.