The Wailin' Jennys set off a "Firecracker" – September 2006
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The Wailin' Jennys set off a "Firecracker"  Print

By David McPherson, September 2006

From meeting Meryl Streep while on tour with Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion to headlining the venerable Winnipeg Folk Festival, it's been quite a summer for The Wailin' Jennys. Rooted firmly in the roots genre with equal sprinkles of folk, bluegrass and old time music, this trio of harmonious ladies are like three little birds singing softly and sweetly in the early morn.

The Wailin' Jennys hail from Winnipeg, Canada and feature alto Annabelle Chvostek, mezzo Nicky Mehta and soprano Ruth Moody. The band's latest record - "Firecracker" - showcases the breadth of these three distinct voices; it also allows each songwriter to strut their stuff, with each contributing four songs.

The eerie opener "Devil's Paintbrush Road," which echoes an old time Appalachian murder ballad, was penned by the latest Jenny - Chvostek - who replaced founding member Cara Luft in 2004. The plucking of Chvostek's melodious mandolin steers this song that originally appeared on her solo disc in a stripped down version of just voice and fiddle plucking. Here, it sounds fuller due to the added harmony of her new band mates and the added instrumentation.

"I've heard people say that it sounds like one of those old spooky traditionals," says Chvostek. "I actually wrote it on a canoe trip where I had just taken this old violin with me and nothing else in terms of music. I originally wrote it just plucking the violin. Now it is a full out bluegrass party, and it's pretty exciting to see that unfold."

"Firecracker" (Red House Records) features a lot of plucking, but also it is also marked by lots of pulsing of accomplished acoustic instrumentation; it explodes from the speakers like a ton of TNT. Guitar whiz Kevin Breit (Norah Jones) adds another spark to the Jennys musical journey throughout.

The group's debut disc - "40 Days" - won the band a Juno (Canada's equivalent of a Grammy) for best roots/traditional album in the (group) category in 2005. Since Chvostek joined the band, she's brought some even sweeter songs to the Jennys' repertoire. Overall, "Firecracker" provides more than 50 minutes of pure musical bliss with nary a blemish. Inspired by a variety of styles, from the country-waltz of "Swallow" to the gospel soul of "Glory Bound" and the a cappella spiritual of "Long Time Traveller," "Firecracker" is a melding of these songwriting ladies various influences.

"My songwriting has taken many turns over the years and just hanging out with people playing old time country stuff has really gotten into me," Chvostek comments. "Ruth has this wild encyclopedic knowledge of all things folk and roots. At the same time, there is a real love of what is going on in contemporary song. Nicky has this whole Brit pop influence in her stuff, so it all sorts of melds together. I think it kind of echoes of this time in the past, but at the same time it speaks to a contemporary sound as well."

Producer David Travers-Smith (Jane Siberry) once again captured the sounds on "Firecracker." Moody describes the intense recording sessions for the band's sophomore release.

"It was a long process," she says. "We started in June 2005 when we met with David Travers Smith out west in Victoria. We first recorded some a cappella material in this beautiful chapel in the middle of nowhere just to get the juices flowing. That was a really nice way to start. We worked with some amazing musicians on this record. We launched into the beds in October, and it was intense. It was an exciting process, but it was also hard are under the microscope, and you have to be playing your best. It's a real challenge and a very intense growing experience. It was exciting to be working with Annabelle in the studio for the first time and also exciting to work with David again. He's a sonic genius. He knows us and knows where we like to go and has great ideas."

Chvostek echoes her bandmates' sentiments about their producer. "He is very intuitive and able to tune into the larger vision in an interesting and fun way," she adds.

Moody was born in Australia, but grew up on the Canadian Prairies, and this rural rearing is seen in the songs she contributes to "Firecracker," especially the aptly-titled "Prairie Town." With several roots bands coming out of Winnipeg in recent years (The Duhks and Nathan to name a couple), one wonders what makes this prairie town such a vibrant and vital musical landscape?

"People ask us that all the time," Moody says. "It's really hard to put your finger on something like that. Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with the Prairies and the landscape, and it just brings that out. There is that theory that such a long winter can only produce that kind of interest and love of music and sharing of music because there is only so much time you can spend outdoors in the winter, and that is how people pass the time. In a way, it seems like a bogus theory because there are a lot of cold places in the world, but there really is something to that."

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