The Be Good Tanyas
ay LaMontagne, Peter and the Wolf, the enduring Ani Difranco, and the oft ignored Hope for Agoldensummer are just four outfits that have coaxed fans with their wooly-gloved hands, beards, cascading dreadlocks, and legwarmers. But even as these groups vary in the wares they sell, the finished product is always the same: down-tempo, guitar based, effectively underproduced, and spatially accommodating. Ergo, folk in its contemporary form. The Be Good Tanyas, too. For a presence in the folk present, take Hello Love half an hour before bedtime. Disclaimer: on this trip, you will move peripatetically—back, forth, and in all cardinal directions through the country and musical history.
Hello Love is highly accessible, employing kind, major-key chord progressions, simple vocal melodies, vibrato, and ¾ time with gooey frequency. The banjo and guitar provide the most modern backdrop to the band’s sound, while fiddle and piano, on tracks like “A Little Blues” and “Crow Waltz” add precisely what the title says to the homogenous mix. Put the Dixie Chicks in a dingy bar, and the effect might be similar. That’s not an insult—it’s just to say that the Be Good Tanyas, not necessarily by choice, stayed in the proverbial saloon. Hello Love is certainly the most hinged of their three releases, in that it sounds the cleanest—the most streamlined both instrumentally and lyrically. Too bad what it’s saying is, more often than not, familiar to the point of being trite.
The jumping, jittery imagination of “It’s Not Happening,” the opener to successful second album Chinatown was more playful than even the most lighthearted tracks on Hello Love. These songs are—understandably after a three-year release hiatus—more mature, borrowing material from the likes of Neil Young and making over such covers with a well-developed sagacity—but little abandon. “Scattered Leaves,” another cover and the album’s crux, is sedate, sexy, and powerful (picture Ally McBeal swaying by herself at the office bar). The album is chock full of such numbers, but after weeks of immersion, I still found them hard to tell apart.
The bare-bones “Hello Love” is the strongest track, with quiet field recordings of water, an electric guitar backing Ford’s hazy, feathery voice, and an adagio pace that nearly lacks structure, going only as fast as Ford wants to. The lyrics are simple, rhyming, and belie old traditions that now feel awkward. “If you kiss me once again / Out here in the rain / We’ll start all over again” may as well be part of a country cover, and the production of “Out of the Wilderness” seems falsely rustic, even if its subject requires it. The piano ballad “Song for R.” is the most personal, with its breathy vocals, melodic descents swathed in reverb, and a narrative about addiction. It would make a much finer exit track than “When Doves Cry,” which is a final clinching statement about the creative choices of the band. It’s a righteous cover, but the band would do well to strike out beyond overplayed traditions.