- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

The Wailin’ Jennys

Firecracker Red House Records

With a baker’s dozen of fresh, rootsy songs and their signature heart-stopping harmonies, the Wailin’ Jennys’ second recording should prove explosive for their careers.

The three Canadians, Annabelle Chvostek, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody already have won the admiration of Garrison Keillor, who featured them on his popular program “A Prairie Home Companion,” heard on National Public Radio.

The first Wailin’ Jennys disc, “40 Days,” with vocalist Cara Luft, earned the trio a 2005 Juno — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy award, for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year.

Miss Luft left the group and was replaced by Miss Chvostek. The Jennys’ sound remains as pure as a mountain stream, though, and just about as bubbly. With claw hammer banjo, mandolin and fiddle high in the mix, producer David Travers-Smith capitalized on the trio’s penchant for the old-time sound, adding just the edge of rock guitars, percussion, organ and horns to make the disc palatable for modern tastes.

Each of the women wrote four songs for the recording, and the first four set the tone for the rest of the disc. Miss Chvostek wrote “The Devil’s Paintbrush Road,” with its hooky refrain, plus “Live and die and gone,” followed by Miss Moody’s composition, “Glory Bound,” practically a hymn complete with “hallelujahs.” Either of these songs would be welcomed by the most die-hard traditional music lover.

With Miss Mehta’s “Begin,” the Jennys steer into more of a pop sound with layered, sustained harmony vocals, tinged with accordion and fiddle. The disc hits its stride on Miss Moody’s “Things That You Know,” with goosebump-inducing three-part harmonies backed by a rhythm-and-bluesy combo that includes mandolin.

The Jennys’ a capella arrangement of the traditional “Long Time Traveller” would have been at home on the “O Brother” soundtrack.

These songs have a hint of folk politics. What traditional recording would be complete without a call for peace?

But this is not peace in the sense of protest; rather, it calls for universal justice. In “Avila,” with its refrain “O sweet peace,” Miss Mehta writes, “I will not rest until this place is full of sunlight/Or at least until the darkness is quiet for a while.”

The lyrics also display a playful quality at times. Miss Chvostek writes in “Swallow,” “You got me, arrow shot me/Now come connect-the-dot me.”

This isn’t your grandfather’s folk music. There are no ballads with 20 verses — no heart-rending tales of woe, murder, freight trains or rivers.

Yet in the Wailin’ Jennys’ pleasant, well-produced songs there is an undercurrent of a century and more of homespun songwriting, set to musical sounds that conjure traditional themes and images. It was the formula for success in the 1950s and early ‘60s for groups like the Kingston Trio, Limeliters and Brothers Four.

Could “Firecracker” ignite another folk boom?

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