Hello Love is cozy and enveloping, like a big, hand-woven blanket on the first brisk winter day. Unless you have a strange aversion to comfort, I’m guessing that you, too, will be drawn in by these songs’ warmth.
I’ve been drawn in by both the sound and the feel of this record. That’s not to say the words don’t matter, it’s just that I didn’t really hear them during my first listen. Instead, I heard melodies from familiar covers and three-part harmonies caressing original compositions. I noted the gentleness of upbeat jazzy romps and sultry slow ballads—a bewitching gentleness that made my usual penchant for edginess in music seem laughable and unwarranted. Hello Love puts you in a state that you want to be in.
This same sonic allure was also evident in the Be Good Tanyas’ two prior albums, and since these aren’t reviewed in the PopMatters archive, I’ll revisit them now. The first song on 2000’s Blue Horse wafts out of the speakers like a spring breeze: “The Littlest Birds” is jaunty folk-pop, sparkling with full harmonies and a cordially inviting feel. Several songs would befit a summer soundtrack, from the buoyant “Lakes of Pontchartrain” to the cheerful closer “Light Enough to Travel”. But the overall gorgeousness of the album belies the sometimes dark subject matter. The stunning “Broken Telephone” mines its title as a metaphor for pondering connections within a disconnected world, and the band’s interpretation of “The Coo Coo Bird” achieves a sinister and hypnotic mood, one that balances modern and old-time sounds. Blue Horse caught listeners’ ears and stuck: startling in its simplicity, and yet full of compelling and complex compositions. I knew from this confident debut that I’d be tracking the careers of these three ladies from Vancouver.
Chinatown followed in 2003 and was a more somber affair, as quickly conveyed through several song titles: “In My Time of Dying”, “The Junkie Song”, “Lonesome Blues”, and Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Around to Die”, which are also the album’s strongest moments. The instrumentation is sparser here and the tempos of a generally slower pace, highlighting how well the Be Good Tanyas’ voices meld together. The original “In Spite of All the Damage” achieves the same level of aching heartbreak as their cover of “House of the Rising Sun”. If Blue Horse was a sunny afternoon with just a few clouds, Chinatown was a move into a grey, overcast day.
These releases proved that the Be Good Tanyas are proficient at alternating both moods and vocal leads. For Hello Love, the Be Good Tanyas didn’t necessarily have to change anything: their formula isn’t broken or worn-out. But opener “Human Thing” achieves a certain sensuality that isn’t as prominent in their two previous efforts, and the confidently-read “For the Turnstiles” is chill-bump inducing—it’s the sound of a band re-owning a classic song, transforming it into their first self-assured anthem. It begs to be played at a loud volume, and indeed, “it could change you in the middle of the day.”
Whereas past albums employed the occasional bluesy interpretation, Hello Love presents as many shades of the blues as its patchwork cover. The album’s title track is rainy, forlorn, and of a slow tempo, while a cover of Jeremy Lindsay’s “Scattered Leaves” is as instrumentally slinky as it is vocally sultry. The slide guitar that speaks along with Frazey Ford’s solo vocal gives the traditional “Out of the Wilderness” a definitive country blues reading. Mississippi John Hurt’s “Nobody Cares for Me” gets the help of ex-Be Good Tanyas Jolie Holland, and the four voices wrap around it like a lovely lullaby, offering a comforting balm to the hurt of the lyrics. Belying its title, “A Little Blues” actually shows no sign of despair; it is a sprightly piano- and fiddle-driven dance tune that begs to be played in a prohibition-era speakeasy. Old Crow Medicine Show helps out here, and on the similarly-minded instrumental “Crow Waltz”.
The traditional gospel number “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” is wonderfully interpreted in a manner most reminiscent of prior work, but the album’s final—and hidden—track is the grandest departure. The listener almost has to unhear Prince’s “When Doves Cry” to properly absorb this version, as one doesn’t normally associate a funk backbeat with banjos and acoustic instruments. The Be Good Tanyas’ version presents a good opportunity to more clearly hear the lyrics, which, it turns out, are written from the perspective of a pregnant woman seeking responsibility from her lover.
In sum, The Be Good Tanyas know what they are doing. Although they recognize their strengths and know that their formula works, they are also smart enough to explore new territory. The album’s 13 songs have only two slight misfires, the piano and strings of “Song for R” are too maudlin for my taste, despite the moving lyrics. And the weighty questions posed within “A Thousand Tiny Pieces” risk overburdening the song’s delicacy. But, overall, the sounds within this album just won’t leave my head, nor do I want them to: Hello Love is a welcome salutation from a very talented and maturing band.
// Notes from the Road
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