Canadian Ruth Moody is best known as one of the three Wailin’ Jennys, so listeners might well expect her latest full-length to contain a lively assortment of acoustic-flavored Americana. They won’t be disappointed. These Wilder Things is an assured set that runs the gamut from banjo-pickin’ neo-traditionals to soft acoustic ballads, with a good mix of tempos and instrumentation (thanks to a hefty list of guest musicians, including Mark Knopfler and fellow Wailin’ Jennys Nicky Mehta and Heather Masse) to keep things lively. Not every tune here is a knockout, and frankly the album sags a bit in the middle, but overall this is a solid contribution to Moody’s resume.
Opening track “Trouble and Woe” happens to be the best song on the album. Strongly traditional in structure and tone, this perfect nugget of banjo-inflected country blues kicks off the proceedings on a high note, notwithstanding its dreary lyrics about pain and suffering and so on. Like all great traditional songs, this one offers a vision of strength in adversity—simply by acknowledging that life is full of trouble and woe, the singer (and listener) is able to get past it. It’s a meaty, muscular song, and it holds much promise for the rest of the album.
It’s a pity, then, that the rest of the album doesn’t quite measure up. Follow-up “One and Only” is sweet enough but lacks much edge, and is quickly forgotten. The cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” is a misstep for a whole slew of reasons, not least of which is that this song is among the Boss’s weakest big hits. Moody’s voice is ill-suited to its vibe of gritty desperation, and she comes off as mildly put out rather than anything more severe. Maybe something from Nebraska would have been a better choice. At this point, the listener might be forgiven for wondering if that stellar opening track was a fluke.
Fortunately, a handful of strong songs helps to set things straight, or at least straighter. “Pockets” is a swooping, swaying tune that features plenty of pedal steel and one of Moody’s most affecting vocal performances, not to mention the guitar playing of Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler, while “Life Is Long” brings some Irish-sounding fiddle and whistle into the mix. Closer “Nothing Without Love” brings back the banjo to offer a sweet bookend for the opening track’s cloudiness. Much of the rest of the record, though, consists of mellow, downtempo songs that tend to run together a bit. Your mileage may vary, of course, but there isn’t a great deal to differentiate the songs even after repeated listenings.
Ultimately, then, this isn’t a bad record, but neither is it as strong as it could be. Moody possesses a fine clear voice, one that can swoop from a tremulous whisper to a full-throated holler and back again, and it has a smoothness and sweetness that is rare. The voice is let down somewhat by the songwriting, though. With the Jennys, Moody is forced to share songwriting (and singing) duties with her bandmates, which perhaps pushes her to focus on only a handful of her finest tunes for each album. Maybe the next time she has a whole record to play with, she’ll be able to bring that same degree of focus as well.