Be Good Tanyas – The speaking quietude
Some musicians play so loud, so fast, so hard that they test the boundaries between music and noise. The clumsy ones lose control and collapse into incoherence, but the agile ones — say, the Velvet Underground, Husker Du, R.L. Burnside and late Coltrane — constantly threaten that collapse without ever allowing it, and with that tension create great drama.
Something similar happens at the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. One can play so quietly, so slowly, so delicately that the music threatens to evaporate into nothingness. We don’t tend to think of this subdued sound as being bold and innovative, but in fact these artists create as much tension as the wall-shaking, roof-rattling avant-gardists.
Of course, minimalism can be done badly and become merely boring, but musicians such as Jonathan Richman, Olu Dara, Philip Glass and Kate & Anna McGarrigle push at the boundary between understatement and non-statement without ever crossing it. In doing so, they forge a sonic tension that’s easily linked to the emotional tensions of our lives; after all, our deepest secrets first emerge not in shouts, but in whispers.
No one is pursuing this minimalism with more courage and success right now than the Be Good Tanyas. These three women from Vancouver, aged 27-31, revive old-time blues and hillbilly tunes and write new songs in the same ancient mode, but they strip things down till the music threatens to fall apart, although it never does.
This is not the easy minimalism of a single voice and a single guitar; this is the riskier, more difficult minimalism of a full string band with three-part vocal harmonies. The women — Samantha Parton, Frazey Ford and Trish Klein — all sing, all play an assortment of guitars, mandolins, banjos, harmonicas and ukuleles, and are usually joined by a drummer and bassist. What’s thrilling about their 2000 debut album Blue Horse and their follow-up disc Chinatown (due March 11 on Nettwerk America) is the way they can get so much going in a song and yet still keep things so quiet.
During a recent show at northern Virginia’s Iota Cafe, for example, the Be Good Tanyas tackled “In My Time Of Dying”, the old blues-gospel song that had been recorded as a driving, acoustic number by Bob Dylan on his debut album and as a grandiose, amplified production by Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti. The Tanyas took it in quite a different direction, transforming it from a defiant protest against death into a trembling contemplation of the inevitable.
Ford, wearing a floor-length, antique black gown and a big white camellia over her right ear, played a reluctant swing rhythm on her acoustic guitar. This was countered by slow, melodic banjo triplets from Klein, a small redhead who allowed the bibs of her overalls to hang downward from her waist. Chopping away at the swing pulse on mandolin was Parton, the tallest member, whose bushy dark hair sprawled over the collar of a thrift-shop, flower-print blouse. Ike Eidsness, the band’s unofficial fourth member, softly brushed the drums.
Everything was done very quietly, very simply — but still there was a gnawing tension in the way the swing chords pulled one way and the banjo triplets pulled in another. Ford exploited that tension in her vocal, a breathy, slightly nasal soprano that wasn’t shouting out to the whole world, as Dylan and Robert Plant had, but was instead murmuring to the person next to her. “Well, in my time of dying,” she sang, “I don’t want nobody to mourn.”
It was as if the song’s protagonist were planning her own funeral, and she was holding up well under the circumstances, but you could tell from the frail voice and tentative arrangement that her composure could crumble at any moment. “All I want my friends to do is to take my body home,” Ford sang. And Parton and Klein answered her, “Well, well, well,” in a deadpan whisper, as if agreeing to the request but without pretending the task would be easy or pleasant.
This version of “In My Time Of Dying” is on the new CD, Chinatown, and so is “Rowdy Blues”, another traditional number that is anything but rowdy. When Ford sings, “I ain’t gonna marry, neither settle down,” it’s not as a taunting boast but as an under-the-breath promise to herself. There’s something unnerving about an act of social defiance delivered so quietly, so calmly, especially when echoed by the whispery harmonies and patient picking of her bandmates.
“That song has a delicate groove,” Ford explains. The phrase, “delicate groove,” sounds like an oxymoron, but it gets at the heart of the Be Good Tanyas sound. For there is a definite pulse, an inexorable momentum to their arrangements, and the fact that it’s generated so unassumingly makes it all the more strange and compelling.
“It’s a delicate groove in the sense that if you were to mess with it, it would fall apart,” Ford elaborates. “The rhythm and the counter-rhythm have to be balanced at the same volume and intensity. If someone came in and emphasized one beat or the other, it would go out of balance, and you’d lose the groove. On a lot of old blues records, the rhythm of the vocal is offset by the rhythm of the guitar. We’re trying to do the same thing with a whole band.”
“We were playing ‘Rowdy Blues’ at a festival workshop once,” Klein recalls, “and one of the other performers onstage started wanking away on his guitar, trying to turn it into a bar-band blues. I’m playing this quiet banjo part, and he’s going ‘brwang-brwang.’ Afterwards, he said, ‘That’s the most delicate blues I’ve ever heard.’ I said, ‘That’s the whole point.'”
“Our whole sound comes from sitting around in living rooms and singing and playing with our friends, drinking tea and red wine,” Parton points out. “If you really care about what you’re playing and the other person cares about what you’re playing, you don’t have to be loud. In fact, it’s better if you’re quiet.