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The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars
By Jerome Clark
The Wailin’ Jennys, three young women from Winnipeg (two) and New York City (one), are among the most sought-out acts on the current folk circuit. Sometimes the popularity of particular acts is a mystery to me, but in this case the grand talents of Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse are there to be enjoyed if you have good taste and functioning ears. They hail from various musical backgrounds — folk, of course, but also jazz and classical, the latter of which is presumably responsible for their chamber-music approach. One can hear echoes of this sound in a few British folk bands, but the Jennys are still distinctive in their richly conceived arrangements.
Each Jenny is a superior vocalist, and together their harmonies approach the heavenly. To my hearing, they are never better than when they tackle traditional material, which on Bright Morning Stars is the title song, a gorgeous 19th-century hymn previously recorded by Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, among others. When I say the Jennys’ is the equal of any of those, praise can be no more elevated.
The rest of the songs are all the individual work of Moody, Mehta and Masse — if they ever contemplate a name change, may I suggest 3M? — and again, gift and craft are on full display. My only complaint is my problem, not theirs; it’s just that I like folk music a lot more than I like pop music. That doesn’t mean, I suppose I must add, that I don’t recognize good pop when I hear it. But the sort of acoustic-guitar pop Joni Mitchell invented and briefly practiced in the latter 1960s has languished near the bottom of my personal listening charts for a long time now, and that’s a lot of what the Jennys do. On the other hand (is this the third or fourth one now?), the Jennys do it as well as anybody currently fashioning it. If you like it, you will like the Jennys’s way of doing it, and you’ll want to seek out the two solo CDs Moody and Masse put out in the past year or so. I couldn’t bring myself to review either for reasons just stated.
Some of the originals, however, owe something to inspiration in traditional music. They are almost invariably excellent. Here one spectacular example is Masse’s “Bird Song.” I could pour on the usual array of celebratory adjectives, but I’ll restrain myself. Just listen to it, and you’ll know.