CD Reviews 

Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House 

Ordinarily, live albums exist because an act needs income-generating "product" — the cynical industry term — out there while he, she or it tries to figure out what his, her or its next "real," which is to say studio, album is going to be. Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, however, doesn’t sound like one of those. Ordinarily, live albums exist because an act needs income-generating "product" — the cynical industry term — out there while he, she or it tries to figure out what his, her or its next "real," which is to say studio, album is going to be. Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, however, doesn’t sound like one of those.

In this space on 26 August 2006, I reviewed the Wailin’ Jennys’ previous (and second) Red House disc, Firecracker, more dyspeptically than delightedly. Returning to it now, I can only surmise that on the day in question, sour humor had enveloped me and laid claim to esthetic assessment. I complained about everything from the Jennys’s name (it struck me as pointless to parody a country singer’s name if you’re not a country band) to the production (too glossy) to the music (way too pop for a self-described folk group). I grudgingly allowed as how some talent was in evidence, but went on to advance the grumpy hypothesis that inasmuch as the Jennys are young, their music is arguably best appreciated within a demographic that I personally left, mmm, a while ago. For all I know, I may have been right about all this.

Based in Winnipeg, the Jennys have passed through a series of personnel changes since their 2004 recording debut. Among the founders, Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta remain, joined now by the sole American, Heather Masse, originally of Maine and now of Brooklyn. I take it that fiddler and mandolinist Jeremy Penner is hired hand, not official member. In any event, Live captures a concert the four performed in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, on August 30, 2008. It leads me to recall a letter I read in Mad magazine when I was a kid. A reader inquired, "Am I maturing, or is Mad getting worse?" Mad’s response — inevitably — was, "Mad’s maturing, so you must be getting worse."

Well, I think the Jennys are maturing, and I also like to think, perhaps too optimistically, that I’m not getting worse. Suffice it to say, in any case, I was already having a good summer and this CD only made it sonically, possibly even spiritually, richer. The vocals and harmonies approach a degree of perfection, without ever sounding soullessly technical, that one barely expects to encounter on this Earth. The arrangements attain that rare state where the simple and the full meet and it’s not exactly easy to discern where one ends and the other picks up the slack.

And the songs — one gem after another, from sterling folk-pop originals to Gillian Welch/David Rawlings’s "One More Dollar" (which travels Woody Guthrie’s landscape but under its own power) and Jane Siberry’s angelic "Calling All Angels" to … well, two of my all-time favorite traditional tunes, the sea shantey "Bold Riley" and the Lead Belly-derived "Bring Me Li’l Water, Silvy." There is also an exemplary vocal arrangement of "Motherless Child," a spiritual once ubiquitous, now rarely heard (replaced, it appears, by "Motherless Children," another song entirely, with the misery multiplied).

The selection of Masse as new Jenny was surely an inspired one. And two already talented women, Moody and Mehta, have gotten better at what they do. That, plus whatever magic hovered in the air that summer night in Jim Thorpe, combines to bring us one of this year’s most thoroughly enjoyable contemporary-folk albums.

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