Category: Be Good Tanyas

Canadian Girl Groups:
The Be Good Tanyas, The Wailin’ Jennys, and The Good Lovelies

September 22nd, 2010 — 10:20 pm

I have a thing for sweet harmony of any type, but not all harmonies are created equal – or should be. And though there are many factors which can affect how voices blend – from range to accent, from tone to purity of voice – gender pairing has much to do with the fundamental possibilities which can emerge from singing together.

More often than not, strong male/female duos and mixed-gender groups produce a study in contrast, leaning heavily on the contrast between their vocal range and tone – see the newest work from Isobel Campbel and Mark Lanegan, or go way back to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to hear what I mean, or look at the delicate intertwined harmonies of Gillian Welch and high tenor David Rawlings as a counterexample. Similarly, it takes few examples to explore male groupings: unless we’re talking about sibling and siblingesque groups like The Everly Brothers or The Beach Boys, from CSNY and The Eagles to Simon and Garfunkel and The Brilliant Inventions, the goal here is to meld disparity into beauty, and when it works, it really works.

Female singers, on the other hand, generally produce a tighter sort of sound. The American trio Red Molly, for example, who we’ve featured often on these pages, come across with beautiful chords; meanwhile, duos such as the Watson Twins or First Aid Kit soar together up and down their respective approaches to melodic folkpop.

But despite its relatively sparse population, I find that a number of my favorite all-girl folk groups come from Canada, a.k.a. America’s Hat. Maybe there’s something in the water; maybe there’s something about those long winter nights far from the equator that brings the ladies together for practice to make perfect. Regardless: we’ve featured duo Dala plenty in the past few months, thanks to their appearance at this summer’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, but here’s a triplet of strong tripartite partnerships from North of the border which have been tickling my fancy lately.

I discovered Juno-award winning trio The Good Lovelies quite recently, through their appearance on fellow Canadian girlgroup Dala’s live 2010 tour-de-force Girls From The North Country; seeking them out via the usual channels revealed a charming but small collection of CDs chock full of delight, and I’d recommend any and all to anyone. Their acoustic-driven songs have a retro girl group flavor in places, tending towards the smiling sweetness of the Andrews Sisters, while other tracks echo the forthright heart and heartiness of the Dixie Chicks at their best, but even beyond their penchant for bells and guitar-based instrumentation, there’s something eminently down-to-earth and delicate about them that rings folk to me.

The Be Good Tanyas have been on my radar since their inception, thanks to local radio station WRSI, which played their debut Blue Horse to death when it first hit the scene in 2000. Two albums later, with nothing new on the shelves since 2006, member Franzey Ford has just emerged with a strong debut solo disc, while long-gone founding trio member Jolie Holland continues to tour to support her own haunting catalog … but hiatus or not, the three sparse, old-timey, blues-and-americana-tinged albums the Vancouver trio produced so far remain high on my eternal playlist, and for good reason.

Longstanding folk mainstays The Wailin’ Jennys hail from “Canada’s heartland”, and it shows: theirs are campfire harmonies, rich and fluid, sweet but with a hint of breath and smoke that are well worth celebrating. Their newest release, 2009′s Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, is a stunning collection, with strong covers and originals from a trio already long overdue for prominent placement in the pantheon of great modern folk acts after just a handful of albums. I’ve posted their gentle, gorgeous cover of Neil Young’s Barefoot Floors several times, most recently atop our recent Covered In Kidfolk feature on lullabies, but any chance to prove that they’re not just a one-trick pony is welcome, indeed.

1,445 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Good Lovelies, Wailin' Jennys

Midnight Coverfolk: Songs for the Middle of the Night

September 14th, 2008 — 12:32 am

I’ve always been nocturnal by nature, treating the darkest hours as my own private playspace. It’s in the genes: growing up in the summer vacations of my childhood, my siblings, my father and I wandered the house like ghosts until three. Until I joined the public schoolteacher’s union, I’d seen the sunrise more times at the tail end of my day than the beginning.

But teaching is an early riser’s profession. Fight as I may, after five hours of sleep and a full day in the hallways of urban adolescent chaos, I’m worn by supper, and drained by ten. I stay up as late as I can, winding down, blogging over at the collaborative. But these days, I’m lucky if I see midnight.

Which is to say: please pardon our bedraggled appearance while we remodel our author’s sleep patterns, folks. In the meanwhile, here’s some quiet songs of the witching hour, written late and tired.

153 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Caroline Herring, Cowboy Junkies, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Davis, James Yorkston, Madeleine Peyroux, Mae Robertson

Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow (On Traditional Folksongs as Tabula Rosa) Plus 3 bonus Grateful Dead rainsongs

December 16th, 2007 — 03:01 am

Whether stripped-down so as not to overwhelm the authenticity of the song and singer, or jazzed up to resonate with modern musical sensibilities, it is the passage of familiar song, motif, and situation between audience and performer which makes the “folk” in folk music. Songs about trains are ultimately songs about longing; songs about the road resonate with those who wander and those who long for a change, though in different ways. Such songs play broadly to universal themes, the better to leave room for such connection. In collapsing the participant/observer gap, the songs have connected folk artists and folk audiences for a century or more.

We might say, then, that traditional songs like Rain and Snow (also called Cold Rain and Snow in some collections) are both heart and origin of folk music. Problematically, however, these same qualities which make tradfolk accessible can make writing about traditional songs an exercise in futility.

Many tradfolk songs have loose lyrics, thin and incomplete, which drift from interpretation to interpretation, and thus invite the sort of minute lyrical analysis only a music historian could love. Today’s featured song is perhaps an extreme example of the problem of interpretation. It contains only twelve lines, four of which are merely repetitions of the previous line, and its lyrics are vague, naming lifelong trouble between narrator and spouse without ascribing cause.

Similarly, since the origins of traditional american folk songs like Rain and Snow are murky at best, historical analysis is no better an approach to understanding. Even the best write-ups can end up an exercise in cover geneology, offering little more than a litany of who-sang-and-when, ad infinitum. And this is the anathema of blogging, I suppose, which seems to me most specifically a medium of anecdotal small-scale sharing and interpretation, not mere enumeration.

But this is not to say that there is nothing we can say. The best approach to traditional song interpretation, I think, begins with a simple acknowledgement of what a song is. It is the parameters of possibility which make traditional folk song unique and interesting.

Rain and Snow, for example, is a beautiful, simple, melancholy song of spousal dissatisfaction which can be interpreted as many ways as humans can express such emotion. The way the doubled-lyrics degrade from storylyric to simple image to repeated, strung-out phrase at each verse’s end requires singers to howl their emotional choices open-voweled. The song’s last line leaves open the possibility that the song’s narrator has been the cause of his own resolution, without necessarily calling it either way.

When combined, these traits make for powerful potential in the hands of the coverartist. The unresolved narrative, coupled with the simple lyrical and chord patterns, leaves ample room for true interpretation. Indeed, it is the tonality and approach of a given coverartist which will ultimately determine whether we take these lyrics as melancholy or resigned, the narrative as sinister or merely regretful.

Rain and Snow is generally considered a traditional fiddle-and-folk appalachian folksong, though old folkies likely know it best from the works of Pentagle and the Grateful Dead; it is so much a part of the Deadhead canon, in fact, that it was included on jazz/folk/world music label Shanachie‘s “The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead”. Rather than rehash those old familiars, here’s a set of six stellar post-millenial versions, from folk to roots to celtic to true blue bluegrass, just to prove that there’s always more life to be had in tradsongs, the lifeblood of folk.

As always, wherever possible, artist and album links on Cover Lay Down go directly to each artist’s preferred sources for purchase — the best way to support musicians without giving money to unecessary middlemen. Order now, and put some tradition under the tree.

Today’s bonus rainsongs have all been performed by members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Songfinder:

  • New Riders of the Purple Sage founder Dave Nelson covers the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain (live)
  • Folk supergroup Redbird do a jangly version of Dylan’s Buckets of Rain
  • Neo-folkgrassers Crooked Still cover softly tradsong Wind and Rain

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Folk covers of songs of snow and winter

192 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Blue Mountain, Crooked Still, Dave Nelson, Del McCoury, Grateful Dead, Peter Mulvey, Redbird, Single Song Sunday, solas, The Chieftains

Covered in Kidfolk: Lullabies and Softsongs For Cool Moms and Dads

November 4th, 2007 — 10:31 am

I’ve been a teacher for almost fifteen years, and a Daddy for five; I’m lucky to be able to live in a world where I can be with kids, and play. But other than a short period of time where my daughter’s favorite song was Andrew W.K.’s thrashpunk anthem She Is Beautiful, this means there’s a constant struggle in my house between what I like to call “that same damn circus record” and what the kids dismissively refer to as “Daddy’s music”.

But listen up, Dads (and Moms): when the kids demand more appropriate age-specific earcandy, we don’t really have to lose. In a world where an entire generation is trying to keep their cool in the face of diapers and snailspace trick or treating, you don’t have to listen to that pap that passed for kids music in the disco era. Or Barney songs. Or that awful, too-chipper CD of baby-fied classics your mother picked up at her local all-natural toy store (sorry, mom). There’s a brand new crop of kidsingers out there — a holy host, from Dan Zanes to a thousand younger artists — and they’re not afraid to get ‘em while they’re young.

For the indie and rock crowds, I suppose, this demand for “real” kidmusic does seem to have opened up a new niche market. But folk music has long carried the torch for the authentic in kidsong. My 1970s childhood was filled with acoustic guitar and rough-tinged voices on already-old records from Guthrie and Leadbelly, and newer acts from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bill Staines. When folk music came back for the Fast Folk second wave, it brought along its sense of childlike wonder; the demand bought Grisman and Garcia and Taj Mahal a second round of folkfame, and made way for new acts, like the jamgrass-for-kids Trout Fishing in America.

Since then, as the new generation grows through its indie stages, our favorite streetwise musicians grow up and have kids of their own — and out come the guitars and the quiet, simple voices, calling up half-remembered favorites from a time when everything was simple and pure. Suddenly, everyone’s a folk singer.

Like ice cream comes in vanilla and chocolate, kids songs come in two primary flavors, the quiet and the silly — but there are infinite variations from creamy to nutty. Next week, maybe, we’ll get a case of the sillies, and need to shake it all out. Today, three generations of folksingers — oldtimers Bill Staines and Garcia/Grisman, fastfolker Shawn Colvin and bluegrass staple Alison Krauss, and a host of newer artists from the wide margins of modern folk — bring us a set of lullabies and resting songs for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Click on artist/album names to buy some incredible music for the young and the young at heart. And remember, kids: buying music from the artist’s preferred source gives you peace of mind so you can sleep like a baby.

55 comments » | Alison Krauss, Be Good Tanyas, Bill Staines, Chantal Kreviazuk, David Grisman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jack Johnson, Jerry Garcia, Kidfolk, Robert Skoro, Shawn Colvin