In my never ending quest to 'discover' music that I enjoy, I often turn to the 'folksy-rootsy' sounds of North America (and, to a lesser extent, the UK/Ireland) - sounds in which I can seek temporary refuge from the unrelenting media bombardment with what passes for popular music these days. I accept that this type of music will not appeal to everyone, but it is music which I enjoy very much (providing it is done well - and it certainly is on this album). To me, this album is an excellent example of how a contemporary presentation works well with music and songs having a more traditional folk sensibility. A few songs have a country feel to them, but it is music far removed from the country music of Nashville - this can be over-produced and formulaic (but, of course, not always); and a few other songs are simply 'quality' pop songs. I'd describe the songs as 'pretty and not gritty'. Each of the Jennys are fine songwriters in their own right and, because you have three songwriters, you get a variety of styles. Also, there is a good balance between slow, mid and up-tempo songs.
The mood of the album is difficult to describe. A common theme is one which views life's 'ups and downs' as a journey, and a journey which takes it's toll. Yet, there is always an end to this journey - at which point the 'traveller' can rest (whether this rest is provided by the stability of 'home' or the inevitability of that 'final resting place'). So, the music is tinged with both melancholy and optimism, and this gives many of the songs a bittersweet quality.
Each songwriter takes the lead vocals on her own song and, because each Jenny has a different vocal range - soprano (Ruth Moody), mezzo (Nicky Mehta) and alto (Annabelle Chvostek), this presents further variety for the listener. Perhaps the most striking thing about the vocals is the very tight and smooth harmonies (which, to a greater or lesser degree, feature on all tracks). These are some of the best harmony vocals I have ever heard in my 40 odd years of listening to popular music, they are just 'of another world' - they really are! Also, what I particularly liked about the vocals is the fact that there is nothing mannered or pretentious about how the Jennys sing.
The playing is highly accomplished (at least, that's how it sounds to me). Each of the Jennys is a versatile instrumentalist - acoustic guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, harmonica, accordion; and the session musicians (who might not be that well known) sure know how to play. The production (David Travers-Smith) is first class, the album is neither over-produced nor under-produced - the sound is just 'spot on'; you can hear, with clarity, all of the vocal and instrumental components of the music, and they don't 'get in each others way'.
I liked all tracks - some comments about a selection of these (songwriters in brackets) :
GLORY BOUND (Ruth Moody) - Initially this song has quite a sparse sound - just Ruth's solo vocals and some restrained banjo/violin accompaniment, the sound becomes 'fuller' as the song progresses. I wouldn't say that this is gospel music (the lyrics are too introspective and the tempo is too slow). However, the lyrics contain words and phrases which are metaphors for religious experiences - this, together with the chorus 'Hallelujah' (sung in close harmony), gives a definite gospel 'feel'.
STARLIGHT (Nicky Mehta) - As with 'Glory Bound', the song starts quietly with some delicate banjo and violin. After about one and a half minutes, the tempo picks up and, also, percussion is introduced. I thought the violin and viola solos gave the song a slight Gaelic flavour. Additionally, there are some stunning harmony vocals on this track.
LONG TIME TRAVELLER (A Cappella)(Trad. arr. The Wailin' Jennys) - The shortest track at 2:10. I'm not familiar with the song, but it sounds as if the original may have been a Scottish air (comments welcome). This track is the absolute epitome of vocal harmony bliss - gorgeous.
AVILA (Nicky Mehta) - A slow to mid-tempo song which, yet again, seems to have a Scottish influence. I think this song evokes a similar mood to that of 'Glory Bound'. There is no banjo or violin here - the accompaniment is provided by various acoustic and electric guitars. There are two 'rootsy' electric guitar solos of about half a minute each and they send shivers along my spine.
PRAIRIE TOWN (Ruth Moody) - A slow tempo atmospheric song with some wonderfully mellow acoustic guitar/ National guitar playing - a very relaxing sound.
FIRECRACKER (Annabelle Chvostek) - Another slow tempo song - quite a 'laid back' sound featuring mandolin and acoustic guitar accompaniment. Annabelle's alto voice has an almost sultry edge to it - something you don't get when Nicky and Ruth take the lead vocals.
If you like popular music with a 'neo-traditional' folk sound and/or superb harmony vocals, then you ought to give this one a listen - you don't know what you are missing! This is the sort of popular music that makes me want to chuck my modest hi-fi set-up straight into the bin, and replace it with some high-end audiophile stuff - trouble is, I can't afford it (but I can dream). Sheer, unadulterated quality from a very talented band and session musicians. If you get the feeling that I rather enjoyed this album, you'd be dead right - 5 stars (minimum).
I've almost 'saved up enough pennies', so I will be ordering '40 Days' very soon - I've heard the samples, so I don't think I will be too disappointed.