CD Review – The Be Good Tanyas “A Collection” (Nettwerk)
There is no shortage of erstwhile roots musicians who have shed their folk and country skins in the name of artistic growth, often with mixed results, all too frequently proving that the more they try to reinvent their sound, the more they sound the same.
Then there are the folk purists who tend towards the opposite extreme, often with similar results, only to be written off as costume acts or one-trick ponies.
Fortunately for us, the Be Good Tanyas belong to neither category, as their recently released career-spanning retrospective A Collection ably demonstrates.
Like their label mates Old Crow Medicine Show, the Tanyas have a knack for airing out hoary folk standards, to the point where, in their hands, even the Stephen Foster chestnut “Oh Susanna” becomes the sonic equivalent of a prairie wind. Their stunning original material, from “Draft Daughter’s Blues aka Ootischenia” to “Junkie Song,” rests comfortably alongside covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” and Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles” that, I dare say, rival the original versions. Though Canadian, the ladies of TBGT–Frazey Ford, Patricia Klein, and Samantha Parton (no relation to Dolly, I presume)–frequently come across as real-deal Dixie chicks, as they expertly inform and update traditional forms with a perspective that is at once fresh and timeless.
Ford, who sings lead on most of these tracks, owns a voice like no other. To say that her singing recalls Natalie Merchant by way of Beth Orton would be reductive and probably a disservice, though the vocal similarities exist. The band’s Web site describes her as “the Mick Jagger of folk/roots/American music” for her often murky phrasing, but even that description fails to convey the unique and haunting quality of her instrument. Backed by Klein’s funky banjo picking on “Draft Daughter’s Blues” (Ford is the daughter of an American draft dodger who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War), she sings cryptically of an isolated girlhood spent looking “forward and never backwards,” limning fragments of a life that could only have been lived by the singer:
Long hair coming down her shoulders
She is tired and feeling so much older
So tear the pages from the family bible
It came down upon the women for survival…
Difficult as it is to handpick highlights from a collection so well-chosen, my own list of favorites would have to include the Geoff Berner-penned “Light Enough to Travel,” an atypically rocking number that somehow manages to sound as though it could be a Ford original, written and sung from a reference point that is unmistakably punk:
I broke the windows of the logging company
Just to get a little release
I had to throw down my accordion
To get away from the police…
Another personal favorite is Ford’s own jaunty “Ship Out on the Sea,” as notable for Klein’s danceable banjo riff and guest musician Roey Shemesh’s fretless bass contribution as it is for Ford’s lyricism. When the latter sings that “love is a feeling like a warm dark stone,” you can’t help feeling it’s an apt description of the music itself.
And while she isn’t the first to do so, Ford is wise not to switch pronouns when ostensibly singing from a male point of view, as she does on a reggae-inspired version of “Rain and Snow” and the aforementioned “Oh Susanna,” perhaps intuitively understanding that the sexual ambiguity adds to the allure of the song.
A Collection is rounded off with two new tracks–Parton’s “Little Black Bear” and Ford’s “Gospel Song”–as well as remixes of “Scattered Leaves” and “Song for R,” which, along with the older recordings in their original form, remind and assure the listener that, Wilco and Joe Henry notwithstanding, folk and country music needn’t always be points of departure, and indeed can continue to serve as a solid foundation upon which to build a progressively original and enduring body of work.