On January 5th 2018, The Wailin’ Jennys release their first new recording for six years. The album, Fifteen, is a celebration of a musical partnership lasting fifteen years. The trio – Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Heather Masse – have brought together nine of their favourite songs and the result is 35 minutes of blissful listening, music (if the editor lets me get away with the image) as smooth as melting chocolate.
The album opens with the traditional English song ‘Old Churchyard’ which sets the tone for the album. There is a gentleness of approach, the voices harmonising perfectly, on this track set against a single viola tone, the song passing from one voice to another as it develops. The second track is Tom Petty’s gentle folk song ‘Wildflowers’ and, in The Wailin’ Jennys’ hands, it becomes an even gentler folk song sung against banjo and violin.
You can’t help but be in awe of the version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’ – an acapella delight which keeps the original’s sense of individual rejoicing and emotional rebirth, but which the publicity notes suggest should also be seen in a broader social context as “a call to hope in these troubled political times”.
By now I didn’t think the album could get any better….but the next two songs raise the level further still. An acapella version of Paul Simon’s ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ is set against human percussion and the resultant sparseness makes the track even more of a gospel-tinged gem than the original – I say that having re-listened to both versions.
And then a song I’ve loved for forty years. The original of Emmylou Harris’s ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ is even more of a classic than ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’. To my mind, The Wailin’ Jennys version matches the original for its ability to tingle the spine. The notes tell you “This was another one that felt magical when it was going down”. It is just as magical listening to it.
Warren Zevon wrote ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ at the end of his life. The song goes through a list of everyday circumstances where he suggests to his family and friends that they think of him and – obviously – keep him in their hearts. The version on Fifteen will have even tough eyes prickling. It is made all the more poignant here by the joy of living in the voices and the string arrangement in the background.
The other three tracks are Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, Patty Griffin’s ‘Not Alone’ and Hank Williams’ ‘Weary Blues From Waitin’ ’ – all of them great interpretations.
All three of ‘the Jennys’ have young children and the album was, of necessity, recorded in five days “We thought a covers album would be fun to do…..it was a little nuts. We were arranging harmonies on the fly….But we just went with it, and trusted that it would all work out”.
It certainly does. It’s not five days of recording; it’s fifteen years of singing together, captured in five days. Smooth as melting chocolate.
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‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’: