The covers album is a tricky old beast and one that few acts manage to fully tame. It’s an endeavour that can easily expose a lack of direction, an absence of fresh ideas or worse still, an ill-judged excursion into self-indulgence. It’s no small miracle, then, that female-vocal-bluegrass darlings The Wailin’ Jennys have made such a coherent success of Fifteen, their first album since 2011’s highly acclaimed Bright Morning Stars.
Fifteen is so named because the band are celebrating a decade and a half together. The nature of the new record is, in part, a product of circumstance: the three vocalists now live far apart and in different cities and all have young children, so they could only schedule five days together to record a new album. A direct result of being tight for time is that the musical accompaniments here are, on the whole, very sparse. Though with voices as tender and well-matched as these, that only serves to enhance the intimacy and reverence in which Fifteen is steeped. Some of the arrangements on the album have been honed over the years as part of the band’s live show which again explains why this set of songs, recorded in a hurry, conversely sounds so well-established and unrushed.
If you are new to The Wailin’ Jennys, their three-part harmony sound sits somewhere between the slickness of the Dixie Chicks and the folk-cool of The Be Good Tanyas. If you’re already a fan then you’ll probably be shaking your head at my crude comparisons…
Opening up with the English folk song ‘Old Churchyard’, the trio sings against a gentle viola drone. It’s a haunting start, leading neatly into Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ for which Moody, Masse and Mehta are joined by bandmates Sam Howard, Richard Moody, Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan. The song has long been a staple of The Jennys’ live set and the simplicity of this recorded version, very much in the spirit of the 1994 original, will surely delight fans of the late Mr P.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in struggling with the oddness that is a whole Jane Siberry album, but next, The Wailin’ Jennys reveal the full heart-breaking beauty of her song ‘The Valley’ from the 1989 release Bound By the Beauty. The three voices enter gradually one at a time, giving it a slow build, supported by simple acoustic guitar and weeping strings. When I played it loud with the windows open I swear I heard the heavy sobbing of grown men all along my street.
The ladies return to fully a capella mode for Dolly Parton’s ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’ which is delivered almost like a spiritual. Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ is bouncier and lightens the mood, held together as it is by finger clicks and handclaps. Another legendary elderwoman of Country - namely Emmylou Harris - is celebrated next in the form of ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, lightly dusted with steel guitar and mandolin courtesy of Richard Moody.
‘Not Alone’ is another bringer of tears. The sorrow of the Patty Griffin song, taken from her 1996 debut, is nothing short of an emotional ambush, which The Jennys execute like the highly trained assassins they are (in this particular metaphor). For me, though, the album’s secret weapon has to be the gently poignant rendition of Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ which manages to be simple, sad and sweet all at once. It’s a great reminder of the massive songwriting talent that, as coincidence would have it, left us nearly fifteen years ago. The Wailin’ Jennys finish by playing things straight with Hank Williams’ ‘Weary Blues from Waiting’, the pure Country harmonies of which will surely delight anyone hankering after a truly southern bluesy sound. It’s also an important number for the band as it was the first song they ever sang together and therefore a fitting finale to the album.
The perfectly blended voices of Ruth Moody, Heather Masse and Nicky Mehta are a rare treat all on their own. Rarer still is the ability to put together a collection of covers that sounds so right as a whole record. They acknowledge some giants and shine a light on some lesser-lauded songwriters but most importantly they fill every song on Fifteen with their own character and charm. They’ve tamed the beast and turned it into a real beauty.
Fifteen will be released in the UK via True North Records on January 5th.
Review by Rich Barnard