Sunday, March 4, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1112: The Wailin Jennys

Greetings, gentle readers! This next entry is a double shot! The first half is a review of the latest Wailin’ Jennys album, and below that – bonus coverage – a review of them live in concert.

Disc 1112 is… Fifteen
Artist: The Wailin’ Jennys

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? It’s the ancient art of palmistry, just like you might find it on the back of the curtain in some mystic’s stall at the psychic fair. Look closely and you’ll see that the various lines in the hand are named after the various songs on the album.

You’ll also note that this poor unfortunate’s ring finger is separated at the knuckle. I’m not sure what this portends for their future, but I expect it will affect their ability to throw a Frisbee.

How I Came To Know It: I am a fan going back to their humble beginnings – well, not quite, but close. This was just me buying their latest album.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Wailin’ Jennys albums. “Fifteen” is one of them but because it is a bunch of covers, I’m not sure if it should stack up against their regular albums. Let’s see what I did with other artists.

[leaves off writing and does some research].

OK, I’m back, armed with a couple examples of common law. Way back at Disc 28, I reviewed a Steve Earle album of Townes Van Zandt covers, determined it was a “best of” and didn’t rank it. More recently at Disc 1103 I reviewed a Whitehorse album of various covers called “The Road to Massey Hall” and decided I should stack it up. I must therefore conclude…I can do whatever suits me. That was always the case, of course.

I will stack this one up. I’ll rank it 3rd or 4th, depending on my mood.  

Ratings: 4 stars

If there are prettier harmonies out there, or an artist who understands better how to employ them than the Wailin’ Jennys none come to mind. Fifteen is celebration of the band having been around for that many years, the whole while pushing that talent to the very limit. Once again, they come up aces.

I marinated in this album for several days as I prepared for their concert at the Alix Goolden Hall. When I started I thought it was pretty enough, but it didn’t grab me the way I’d hoped it would. That changed over multiple listens, as the album slowly revealed its subtle grace.

The Jennys have an amazing ability to blend their voices, and have a great sense for when to hold the harmonies tight and when to loosen them up. Sometimes they sing in perfect lock-step, and sometimes they come in and out, or sing in rounds. Whatever best reveals the song’s beauty.

On “Fifteen” they eschew original songs for covers by other artists, and I was a bit disappointed. I look forward to the various ways the Jennys push contemporary folk music, and it has been seven years since they released their last collection of original work.

While “Fifteen” didn’t push their writing limits, it did push their talents as arrangers. Not everything on the album is incredibly innovative, but they do enough to make each song their own.

The album opens with the traditional “Old Churchyard”. It is a solemn and uplifting devotional, and the Jennys wisely play it straight, playing a cappella save for a single atmospheric note in the background of what I think is…a violin? I couldn’t be sure, but I liked the resonance it gave the song.

The album’s two best entries are covers of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock”. On “Wildflowers” Ruth Moody plays the melody on the banjo, drawing out the brilliance of Petty’s writing even more than the guitar strum on the original manages. All the women sound exceptional, with Moody’s high folksy and sweet soprano providing the anchor and some pretty violin from her brother Richard.

On “Loves Me Like a Rock” they eschew instruments for a bit of clapping, finger snapping and foot stomping, maintaining the bluesy swing of the original while putting a folk spin on it. It works equally well and I hope Paul Simon has had the pleasure of hearing his words come to life in a new and wonderful way.

On both tracks it helps to have three singers so incredibly talented you can strip the production and arrangements right back and not fear you’re going to expose any shortcomings. These gals can sing.

The only disappointment I had (and it was minor) was the cover of Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham”. There is nothing wrong with the cover, and if I’d never heard the original I’d be enthralled. It is just that the quavering hurt in Emmylou’s original performance is hard to replace and the purity of the Jenny’s version takes away a bit of the hurt the song needs. In folk-country music covering Emmylou is like pop singers taking on Whitney; even when you succeed, it can seem like you fall short.

This is a minor quibble over an album that is a beautiful homage to some great music. I enjoyed hearing every song reimagined and I enjoyed having the joy of new Jennys recordings in my life after such a long hiatus.

Best tracks: Old Churchyard, Wildflowers, Light of a Clear Morning, Loves Me Like a Rock

The Concert: March 2, 2018 at the Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria BC

I was more than a little excited to see the Wailin’ Jennys having not seen them for 12 years (the last time I saw them was in the same venue on September 8, 2006).

At the 2006 show we arrived late and the only seats available were off to the side of the stage behind a large column, so I spent the show craning my neck to the left and the right to get a good view. This time, we arrived early and stood in the cold to ensure we were able to get our favourite seats. I could tell you where those are, but I’d have to kill you.

Fifteen years have done no harm to the Jennys voices and they filled the amazing acoustics of the Alix Goolden Hall (a converted church) with joy and glory. They take an honest delight in performing, and all of the incredible harmonies I mentioned earlier in my album review were on full display.

There was no opening act and the Jennys played two sets of about 60 minutes each. They mixed in material from across their career, playing old favourites like “One Voice” and “Beautiful Dawn” alongside covers from their latest record. In the end they played seven of the nine songs off the new album which is only right – if you go to live shows wanting to hear only early stuff you are going to shows for the wrong reason.

Highlights of the show were many. “Boulder to Birmingham” was much better live and even though I thought Ruth Moody’s banjo was a bit too low in the mix on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” it was still amazing. “Wildflowers” was played not that long after the cover of Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” and I found myself choking up thinking about how both artists were taken from us too soon.

The Jennys have an easy carefree manner on stage, mixing in just the right amount of friendly banter with the music. Some of the stories are no doubt rehearsed numbers, but they deliver them like it’s the first time which is all you can ask. Many others were clearly off the cuff, with Moody even exclaiming “that was real!” after Nicky Mehta gushed about the book selection at Value Village.

Their personalities shine through whether they are storytelling or performing. Masse has an irrepressible joy, and I often noted her breaking into wide grins at the sheer pleasure of making music. Mehta was the comedienne, with well-timed and self-deprecating humour. Moody is the heart of the band, wearing her emotions on her sleeve she choked up twice – once when she introduced her mom and once when she talked about the birth of her son. I admit I preferred the mom moment.

Hearing them live it was easier to pick out their singing styles as well. Soprana Ruth Moody has a contemporary folk style, her vocals clear and high, Mehta sings in the middle and has an alternative country style that grounds the music and gives it a modern edge. Masse is an alto with obvious jazz influences. She also has the most incredible range of all of them, holding down the lowest end of every harmony but also soaring up the scales to punctuate a song with angelic high notes.  

There were two male Jennys as well. Ruth Moody’s brother Richard played a haunting style on the violin that gave some songs a Leonard Cohen feel, and Adam Dobres played electric guitar when things needed a modern splash. I’d last seen Dobres playing in Outlaw Social when they opened for the Jennys back in 2006. I loved his playing back then and he was just as amazing this time.

The audience was generally well behaved and respectful, cheering between songs and staying quiet during them. A woman in front of me had her phone go off at a bad time, but she was suitably mortified so I forgave her. Another woman bobbed her head side to side and out of time for most of the show, which was weird but at least she was having a good time.

The show ended strangely, when the Jennys got a case of the giggles. They end every concert with an a cappella version of the old Irish standard “The Parting Glass”. Unfortunately right before that happened Moody had a visit from her baby on stage and I think it broke her concentration. Every time they started to sing she’d start to giggle. They got over it by singing some children’s song called “Baby Beluga” which I had never heard before, and don’t care to hear again. It was made slightly more bearable by whale sound effects added in by Heather Masse who I am pretty sure makes for an awesome and hilarious aunt.

Mehta didn’t take part in the children’s song. As she noted, “these two were raised on Raffi, but I was raised on Elton John and neglect.” I feel you, Nicky – I was raised on Johnny Cash and poverty. No time for Raffi, and if I’d had the time I’d have spent it in my brother’s room listening to Blue Oyster Cult instead.

Anyway, with the giggles expunged, the Jennys got back to the front of the stage, gave us “The Parting Glass” with their usual grace and were gone, two hours of music later but still managing to leave us wanting more.

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