I landed a regular writing gig in the Skagit Valley in Washington, covering the arts. I am currently writing an article on the Canadian folk-bluegrass trio, The Wailin’ Jennys. I received the trio’s two CDs as part of my research and what I will say is that I have not been blown away by this kind of musical beauty and strength since I listened to the Beatles’ harmonies as a young child or when I first witnessed Lo’Jo in concert at WOMAD USA in 1998.
Two thirds of the Jennys’ current lineup hail from Winnipeg–the silky vocals of Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta carry tinges of the prairies. Their voices wander like tumbleweeds across a desert or like the birds that they sing about on their CDs, “Arlington” ( 40 Days) and former alto member Annabelle Chvostek’s “Swallow ( Firecracker),” soar like minstrels on the wind. The third voice of the group has been filled by three singers. First, Cara Luft whose voice you will hear covering the low range on “ 40 Days ,” then Annabelle Chvostek who handled alto duties on “ Firecracker” and penned some of the strongest songs on that CD. The new member, Heather Masse not only brings a rich, smoky alto voice, but she also anchors the trio with her jazz background and she adds bass to the mix.
I am discovering this trio after it has already gained momentum having made several guest appearances on NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion,” toured Europe, North American and Australia, and wowed festival promoters, music lovers, and musicians. And what’s not to love? These women provide us with feminine harmonies that recall the beauty of such diverse female trios as the current Värttinä lineup to the early music Trio Medieval. And a listen to “Apocalypse Lullaby” echoes the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” Both songs explore cosmic spirituality and supply us with healing harmonic tones via well-calibrated voices.
40 Days came on the scene in 2004 and this recording possesses a dusky old time folk feel to it. “Saucy Sailor” and some of the traditional arrangements would fit nicely with some the Tradition label’s recordings. The cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man” brings chills to the spine when these ladies contribute their 3-part harmony. “Arlington” sports a silent yet pervasive spirituality that acts like a new age welcome mat. Cara Luft’s (who left the trio to pursue a solo career), “Come All You Sailors” possesses a folk groove that would have fit nicely with the folk resurgence music of the 1970s.
Firecracker also features songs about wandering and wanderers, but the overall atmosphere leans closer to old time country or even gospel music, at least on the second track, “Glory Bound.” While these women do not sing the blues, some of the songs here give a nod to old blues legends, but only on a subtle basis. The instrumentation and arrangements, even the layering of vocals, suggest bluegrass, country and rambling folk of a bygone age. You will hear harmonica, acoustic guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin, acoustic bass and even trumpet. The arrangements are lush, but not over produced, warm without falling into sentimentality. And whatever these women are doing, they are on the right path.
Some people say that the Jennys’ music is healing and I am in agreement with them. First of all you cannot beat female harmonies for lifting moods and consciousness. Harmony in general will do that. Some listeners might also relate to the lyrics about traveling, wandering, seeking a true home and comfort from others. Some of the lyrics from “ 40 Days ,” especially the words of the song, “Heaven When We’re Home” certainly hits the right spot in the heart as do the words to the titular song. These women, with their lush harmonies and smart penmanship grab a hold of the hearts of their listeners and then there is no turning back. They are sirens singing their songs across the prairies conjuring up romantic images of nomadic places in the minds of their listeners. The beauty of their voices haunt, thrill and delight and remind us why music exists in the first place.
There will be those who remember singing songs with their childhood friends on a sunny day. There will be those who remember singing campfire songs and feeling the rush from the harmonies of those songs. There will be people who grew up with old time folk and old time country, but had since forgotten those songs. The Wailin’ Jennys rekindle those memories and then some. Hailing from Canada and the U.S., this trio sings Universal songs during an era when some of us are focused on commonality and not differences.
Patricia Herlevi is the host and producer of the radio show, Global Heartthrob (KSVR-Mount Vernon) and of The Whole Music Experience blog.
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