THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – Bright Morning Stars (2011)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

I was going to start this review by pointing out how the fact that the name of the group was a convoluted pun on Waylon Jennings was probably the most interesting thing there was to say about them! Truth is I originally found Bright Morning Stars to be massively soporific, to the extent that I had to force myself to listen to it all the way through. And it’s no understatement to say that I really struggled to summon up any kind of enthusiasm for it. But before I continue on my way to the eventual denouement of this little tale, let me give you at least a smidgen of background on the band itself. 

The Wailin’ Jennys are a female vocal harmony trio in the country-folk-roots mould. They hail from Canada — the band was formed in Winnipeg on the Eastern edge of the wide Canadian Prairies — and the record, Bright Morning Stars, their fourth album, was first released in 2011. My first few listens I’ll admit to having them down as the kind of placid, overly sincere music that you might associate with say a feminist knitting circle, or a tiresome but particularly self-satisfied coffee shop. It’s not that I have any kind of problem with country music or folksy americana (set aside for the moment the fact that it’s Canadians that made this) in general: no, not at all. Indeed a lot of my favourite music would easily fit that description, or at least fall within the overall sphere of influence of those genres. It’s just, well, I couldn’t escape the whiff of cliche emanating from the album, and I found it to be an awfully dreary and generic affair at first — but let me emphasise that ‘at first’ here. 

But even more than that, I was put off by the fact that the whole album seemed stuck in a sort of low energy trap, which isn’t much help when you consider that — and realise I am in no way proud of this — my main mode of listening to music nowadays is over headphones at work. And, well, I have enough problems concentrating on anything for more than a few minutes during working hours anyway, so the additional torpor induced by Bright Morning Stars made it a challenge to get through, especially on balmy afternoons with the sunlight streaming in through the blinds. I was after something much more ‘stimulating’ and so felt slightly resentful that I had to listen to the record and at least try and be half-way fair to it for the review.

Like I said this was originally gonna be a dismissive review, but at certain point my subconscious intervened and took a firm stand on behalf of these three mellifluous if lethargic folk maidens. It happened one morning, round about dawn, that I was in that strange and vulnerable hypnopompic state of mind between sleep and wakefulness, when I heard, or more accurately was haunted by the sensation of, a serene chorus of female voices, siren voices, singing a song that was so comfortingly familiar it was as if I’d known it for years. Except I hadn’t known it for years, I’d known it for about a week or so; waking up with the residue of those blissful voices still ringing in my mind, it took me a minute or so before I realised where it was I’d heard that song before — at which point I was fairly taken aback. I mean I certainly hadn’t expected to be won over so quickly, and my mind become suddenly so attuned to a record that just the day before I’d struggled to listen to all the way through. Where I had previously perceived an insubstantiality to Bright Morning Stars, an insipidity that seemed reflective of mediocrity and a lack of imagination, I now found myself listening to music that was weightless — yes — but that also sounded graceful and inspired: the melodies were not lukewarm and aimless, as I had first taken them to be, instead, transformed by time and the deeper workings of the brain, I appreciated and was able to applaud their delicacy and refinement. 
Folk music is at its best when it sounds timeless — especially, that is, when the songs themselves are new; that’s the craft. Each record, each performance, is supposed to fit seamlessly into the tradition, so as to ensure that there aren’t any jolts of the sort that used to occur every so often in rock and pop. Indeed once upon a time rock music and popular music used to thrive off of breaks in continuity, these challenges to the old order, only to emerge energised and newly relevant to yet another generation of young people. And so it would seem that the strength of folk music lies in precisely the type of continuity that rock and pop music once used to spurn; it’s not that folk music doesn’t progress at all, but that it’s always at a far more stalely pace. Pondering over these thoughts I asked myself if that which I had initially identified as the Jennies’ genericity — and that I took such an immediate reaction against — might not in the end actually be a point of strength. What matters in the end, at least as far as the genre is concerned, is the deeper resonance of the music, and on that score the Jennies are startlingly successful; they’re a revelation. The tl:dr, then, is that the Wailin’ Jennies are responsible for some very fine music here (in all senses of the word fine): music that manages to seep down into your subconscious and make itself absolutely at home there, without your really realising it and, maybe without you really wanting it — after all what if you don’t like knitting circles and self satisfied autumnal coffee shops — and isn’t there something a bit sinister and even a bit frightening about that? (8/10)
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Author: tomymostalas

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