catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 2 :: 2003.01.17 — 2003.01.30


A daily dose of down home joy

“Well I feel like an old hobo, all sad and lonesome and blue . . .” sing two a cappella female voices in tight harmony, right before a brushed snare drum roll introduces a lilting rhythm and a beautifully simple, spare melody. The harmonies continue like a spider web, delicate yet firm, wandering and decisive: “I was fair as a summer day, now the summer days are through. You pass through places and places they pass through you, but you carry ‘em with you on the soles of your travelin’ shoes.”

So begins the delightful romp through seemingly traditional songs on Blue Horse by the Be Good Tanyas, songs that feel as though you should be sitting on a front porch somewhere in the middle of the Appalachian backcountry. The Be Good Tanyas is comprised of three women from British Colombia. Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton, and Trisha Klein decided to cull their passion for old-time music after meeting several times at open stages and go on the road together. After returning, they holed up in a shack (no running water, just a lot of instruments) and recorded Blue Horse. They are joined by Jolie Holland, a songwriter from Texas, on several songs, most notably “The Littlest Birds” (from which the lyric above is taken and which she co-wrote) and “Lakes of Pontchartrain.”

The traditional bluegrass fare is all here — banjo, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, double bass, and a wonderful version of “Oh Susanna” (who knew it could be so great when learning it for piano lessons in grade school?) — but the Be Good Tanyas use the instruments to sparsely accompany a non-traditional vocal styling that can only be described as oddly comforting and discomforting at the same time. The melodies and harmonies come off strenuously at first, but then, upon further listening, sound easy and beautiful.

Their originals meld seamlessly with the covers thanks to great arrangements and original lyrics that sound as though they could have been written some time ago. In some songs, as in “Only in the Past,” they sing of lost love:

I dreamed that I saw you down at the corner store
You were looking through magazines,
then you flew out the door
I was trying to wave to you, but you wouldn’t wave back
Now you know I understand you’re with me only in the past

And in “Lake of Pontchartrain,” they sing of missing home:

It was on one fine March morning
When I bid New Orleans adieu
And I was on the road to Jackson town
My fortunes to renew 
I cursed my foreign money 
No credit could I gain 
Which filled my heart with longing for 
The lakes of Pontchartrain

But all of the songs are sung with such joy that it feels like these women are simply reminiscing happily about the past, not looking back with remorse. In the same way, the music harkens back to and pays homage to music from the past, music from the Old West, but it does so in a way that fits like a favorite shirt. It feels new and exciting every time you put it on.

Usually I don’t get hooked very easily on new music. I typically have to listen to a CD once and then put it on the shelf for two or three weeks before I can listen to decide whether or not I like what I’m hearing. The Be Good Tanyas, though, had me as soon as I heard the first joyful song proclaiming, “The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.” From there on out, I couldn’t get enough. Each song just oozes with the Tanyas’ passion for the music they’re playing. And that’s probably the main reason I can’t stop listening to this disc.

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