These are lovely voices, but maybe not the ones that you’re used to! The three women who are the Be Good Tanyas create a distinctive sound that includes the sort of rawness that’s been completely expunged from contemporary pop music.
The songs, performed by Frazey Ford (vocals), Trish Klein (banjo, guitar, harmony vocals) and Samantha Parton (mandolin, guitar, vocals) are rough but gentle, like calloused fingertips.
These laid-back, nearly mellow, old-time banjo-and-fiddle ballads talk about normal life, including work and family and travel. Okay, I’m not used to regarding either “Oh Susanna” or “Lakes of Ponchartrain” as “mellow” or “normal,” but craziness and traveling are somewhat normal! Although the group has been described as purveyors of 1920’s style Western or old-timey music, that doesn’t do them justice — there’s a blues sensibility here too.
The opening cut, “The Little Birds” is infectious and inviting. The rhythms and lightness of the harmonies reminded me of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. “I love you so dearly, I love you so fearlessly/I wake you up so early in the morning/ Just to tell you I’ve got those wandering blues.” It’s a sprightly, early morning mile-eating walk.
Almost all the songs share the same walking rhythm. Sometimes a quicker walk, sometimes slower, but all steady. The lyrics are almost inconsequential in some of the songs, which is helpful since the words are occasionally unintelligible…
“Broken Telephone” sounds like the singer is singing blues to herself. That broken telephone is a lovely, although not altogether clear, metaphor for the lack of communication in a broken relationship. “It’s a hard world, it’s a cold world/ I could never say what I mean.”
“Lakes of Ponchartrain” moves along at a steady clip, with an accent that I don’t recognize. I’ve too often heard this song at a dirge-like tempo, so I’m delighted to hear it move along at a faster, and somewhat more cheerful pace.
I wish that someone had sung me to sleep with “Dogsong (aka Sleep Dog Lullaby).” when I was growing up. The fiddle and banjo play to a rocking-chair rhythm, sweet and comforting without being obviously lulling. It seems to be about dogs, cats, day and night and stars. The fiddling is just delightful on this tune. (The fiddler is one of two guest musicians: either Jolie Holland or Mathieu Gagne). A happy song.
“Momsong” is a song for a Mom from her child. When Mom is full of doubts and memory of failures, the singer reminds her that her strength holds the family together, and her laugh gives them strength. The album also includes some of the tougher moments of motherhood in “Up Against the Wall.” Here, the singer describes a mother watching her daughter grow up, and the pain it brings to both of them. “She is 12 years old/Nothing she don’t know/She says you’re 32 but you wanna be 16.”
Find out more about the Be Good Tanyas here.