The Wailin Jennys: Firecracker

The Wailin' Jennys
Red House

Firecracker indeed. This Canadian duo’s second album couldn’t have come out at a better time for me. After months of hearing artists trying to be rootsy without understanding what it takes (and even worse, artists with the pedigree who have lost their way), here is a group that finds the right mix of understanding and reverence, but who know — seemingly by instinct — when to add in the right outside touches.

It helps that the trio has a unique pedigree. The original trio came together for a one-off gig in a Winnipeg guitar shop, but found the blend of their musical backgrounds and voices was worth pursuing. The women, Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Annabelle Chvostek (replacing original member Cara Luft), draw on diverse backgrounds in traditional folk music, classical music, opera, cabaret and pop music.

Which is a great foundation. Now, add in impressive songwriting chops and you have the makings for a great album. The trio wrote 12 of the 13 songs on Firecracker, but you would swear that you know them all. They have a timeless quality to them — the songs could have been written last week, or at any point in the last two centuries.

Individually, a number of the tracks stand out. Moody’s “Glory Bound” features gorgeous lead vocals by the songwriter, and the simple chorus of “Hallelujah” contains as much spirit as a lot of modern-day Christian acts. “Starlight” — one of Mehta’s tunes — is a piece of moody folk rock, with a slightly off-kilter approach that matches the dark lyrics: “There are no vultures in this clearing, / Except the ones who brought me here, / And I’ll no longer feed them, / Take me home.”

That is followed immediately by the gorgeous-sounding “Apocalypse Lullaby”, which is as much about the hope that still exists in the world as all of the disasters of recent years. On “Long Time Traveler”, the one song not penned by a member of the trio, they showcase their amazing vocal chops and ability to harmonize on an a cappella version of the song. Meanwhile, “Things That You Know” adds a rock vibe to the proceedings — capturing the vibe of acts like the Jayhawks much more than the Dixie Chicks (who used Gary Louris of the Jayhawks to pen a number of songs on their latest, Taking the Long Way).

I’ve been avoiding Dixie Chicks comparisons, because I don’t like to push one act by putting down another. Yet it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the acts. For my money, the Wailin’ Jennys do what the Dixie Chicks have always promised, but rarely delivered. But it’s not good to dwell on the negative. Despite its sometimes dark nature, Firecracker affirms that there are few things as beautiful as the bare human voice, except for a chorus of voices singing in harmony. Add in quality tunes and compelling lyrics, and you have an album perfect for nearly any mood.

RATING 7 / 10