I’ll be the first to admit, I love iced coffee drinks, over-stuffed minivan seats, and cats. I love cats. However, this is not the face I put on for the world, nor is that that of anyone I know, though I am absolutely sure that people exist for whom the word “smooth” imparts pleasant, rather than creepy, connotations. And while these people should not be scorned or ridiculed for the practice, it must be known that they probably read lots of books about angels. They will also enjoy 40 Days by the Wailin’ Jennys a lot more than I did.
Let’s start with the name. It’s a cheap shot I know, but what did you think when you saw it? Surely you recognized the pun on Waylon Jennings? Now listen to the album. Listen closely for that outlaw country spirit, the stubbly wit, the rugged hard-drinkin’ individualism. It’s not there. Not that the talented women of the Wailin’ Jennys are bound by their name to a specific sound, but it would be nice to have a smidgen of Highwayman soul somewhere. But their cover of fellow Canadian Neil Young’s “Old Man” demonstrates a fundamental flaw. What to most people is a fairly benign ‘70s AM radio nugget sounds toothy and frayed in retrospect, compared with the Jennys’ version. The cragginess is replaced by whipped-yogurt smooth harmonies and metronome perfect guitar. Again, smooth is not a problem in and of itself. But why “Old Man”? What does the song gain from that sort of treatment? The priority here seems to be prettiness first, song second. It doesn’t work for “Old Man”, and it also threatens some of the Jennys’ own fine originals.
The opener, “One Voice”, is truly beautiful in its simplicity, both lyrically and melodically. Warm harmonies hug close over Ruth Moody’s guitar and Kevin Breit’s mandolin. It’s one of the few songs on 40 Days where the approach feels welcome and appropriate. The traditional “Saucy Sailor” is another example of the cooing sweetness adding interest to material. A dialogue between the saucy sailor in question and a young woman, the song is compelling because the Jennys sound as invested in the story as they do in perfect pitch.
“Untitled”, despite being titled “Untitled” , surprises with Cara Luft’s aggressive rhythm guitar, Richard Moody’s honking viola, and something credited as “piano guts”. But the song itself is a vague story about “the man who lost his mind” and “the girl who lives next door” who “wonders what her life is for”. The song would satisfy more if these characters were fleshed out. Instead, they’re stock symbols of contemporary ennui without names, histories, or anything else to make us care. Likewise, “Beautiful Dawn” appeals to the greeting card crowd with “Take me where the angels are close on hand / Take me where the ocean meets the sky and the land”. See: angels! Why can’t we be taken to Dublin, Madagascar, or even Hoboken for crying out loud? The place where the ocean meets the sky and the land is called a cliché, and the Jennys do no service to their talents by traveling there.
“Ten Mile Stilts” is a shade better, and perhaps a glimpse of what the Jennys might yet accomplish. “Imagine you’re a girl on ten mile stilts” is a great opening line. Even though I’m not a girl, I can imagine this, and am grateful for the opportunity to experience such a strange image in song. “Got a heart that opens clear in the cool September dark / It rests on treetop leaves and bursts its little sparks”. All right! Now we’re getting somewhere—not the place where ocean meets sky, but where the writing is reaching for something a bit beyond the norm, where it’s worthy of the voices and arrangements. The song also asks, “Are you lost or just rehearsed?” I was just about to ask the Wailin’ Jennys the same thing. Here’s hoping that soon they’ll be a little less of both.