Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Wailin' Jennys -- Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House; Heather Masse -- Bird Song

Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House
Outside Music (Canada), Red House (U.S.)

Bird Song
Red House

Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, recorded August 30, 2008, at an old theatre in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, features what’s being referred to as version 3.0 of the Wailin’ Jennys. The original Winnipeg based trio – Cara Luft, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody – burst onto the folk scene in 2002 with an eponymously named EP and a fine full-length CD, 40 Days, released in 2004, that established the Jennys as one of the most glorious-sounding harmony groups around.

Cara had left the group and was replaced by Montreal’s own Annabelle Chvostek by the time they recorded their second full-length album, Firecracker, in 2006. After her two year-stint, Annabelle left the band and was replaced by Heather Masse, a New York-based singer-songwriter. With each personnel change, the Wailin’ Jennys have seemingly seamlessly adapted and evolved. There was something different, but consistently Jennyish, with each change.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the fully-produced tracks on their studio albums, I’ve always enjoyed the Wailin’ Jennys best on stage, when it’s just them, their stunning harmonies and the songs. And that’s how it is on this beautifully-recorded live concert set featuring six songs culled from their earlier albums and eight that they’ve recorded here for the first time.

As on the earlier albums, each of the Jennys takes her turns as lead singer with the other two adding sublime, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-raising harmonies. Most thrilling of all are the three a cappella songs in which their gorgeous voices are all that we hear. They do marvelous jobs on “Summertime,” the Porgy and Bess classic; Lead Belly’s “Bring Me Little Water Sylvie,” which they first recorded on the first EP, and which Heather now takes the lead vocal; and Heather’s own, too-short, “Paint a Picture.”

Among the other highlights are wonderful versions of couple of traditional songs, “Bold Riley” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels,” Gillian Welch’s “Calling All Angels,” and a reprise of Ruth’s “One Voice,” from 40 Days which I think must be regarded as the Wailin’ Jennys’ signature song.

The Wailin’ Jennys are also their own band on this live set with Heather on upright bass, and Nicky and Ruth both playing guitars and switching off to several other instruments. The only other musician is the great fiddler, Jeremy Penner, who adds much to the arrangements he plays on.

Heather Masse, the newest Jenny, also has also just released Bird Song, her first, full-length solo album. It’s a fine effort that showcases Heather’s versatility as a singer and songwriter equally at home in jazz, folk, blues and rockabilly veins. In some ways, the album is reminiscent of the best of Norah Jones’ early work, but Heather seems to put herself into the songs in a way that the sometimes detached-sounding Jones didn’t always do.

On Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Heather proved she can blend beautifully with two other singers. On Bird Song, she proves she and her songs can also stand beautifully on their own.

--Mike Regenstreif

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