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The Wailin' Jennys
40 Songs
Red House

Which is tougher to find: great songwriting or a magical mix of voices? The Wailin' Jennys — a trio of rootsy songbirds from Canada — don't necessarily answer the question, but they do their best on their full-length debut to make it moot.

Ruth Moody, Cara Luft and Nicky Mehta joined together two years ago after crossing paths one night on the local folk circuit in Winnipeg, Manitoba. While each was establishing herself as a solo artist before that fateful show, most of us hearing them now for the first time will find it a challenge to try to disentangle their voices and imagine the separate parts.

As they cleverly declare on the opening track, introducing themselves one at a time until they meld effortlessly: "This is the sound of one voice."

The Jennys embrace their folk roots. On an earlier EP they covered Leadbelly's "Bring Me L'il Water, Silvy," which was a highlight of a recent show for 60 people in a house in Albuquerque. On their own compositions, though, the gals' grip on those folk traditions is a bit too tight, and it steers them toward (though not quite into) some tepid territory. Occasionally, the lyrics get lazy. In spots, the melodies are a little too familiar.

Moody, a deft multi-instrumentalist as well as a smooth soprano, hits some Olivia Newton-John notes on "Heaven When We're Home." Her songwriting hits a few Sheryl Crow notes on the jaunty "Beautiful Dawn," which could have been called "Only One Way to Mend a Broken Heart" and eased the minds of the surviving Bee Gees.

Luft attempts a rock hook on "Untitled," which, if it needed a title, could have been called "Song for Alejandro Escovedo to Sing." Elsewhere, she manages to rise above formula on the churning "Something to Hold Onto" but is sunk by her affinity for old sea songs; two tunes about sailors threaten to weigh the disc down.

Too few of the Jennys' songs take chances. The clear exceptions are those by Mehta. At that intimate live show, Mehta's yearning, searching "Arlington" stood out, showing an extra texture that, on the album, is matched only by two cover songs: John Hiatt's "Take It Down" and Neil Young's "Old Man." A conscious attempt to write A Folk Song, "Arlington" naïvely wonders where the sun goes at night: "Does it wander through the dark? Does it wait for the dawn, wish on a star? Does it stray very far?"

In the company of heavy hitters like Hiatt and Young, Mehta's mates sometimes struggle, though each one manages to get in a good shot or two.

On balance, these songs are good enough to get the Jennys off the ground. All it takes is those airy tones to sweep through and carry them off.

And in the end, it's the lovely mix of three women's voices, and perhaps the providence that brought them together, that makes you forget there might be better songs out there somewhere.

by J.A. Montalbano

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