THE BE GOOD TANYAS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Tuesday (March 11). $16. 416-532-1598.
Vancouver's Be Good Tanyas blew up across the board with 2001's Blue Horse, a sparkling disc of sweet rootsy tunes.Buoyed by the strength of their ethereal harmonies and down-home mandolin/banjo finger-pickin', the Tanyas' original nu-grass material resonated with the same authenticity as their covers of standards like Oh Susanna.
Based on that album's success and the buzz around their oh-so-marketable cute-roots-grrrl appeal (seized on by career-making label Nettwerk), it'd be easy for the trio to sign up a big-budget producer in the hopes of scoring pop super-status with a mainstream-friendly sophomore effort, right?
"Why would we spend money on that?" laughs banjo-pickin' Tanya Trish Klein, fighting off a cold near London, where the band's wrapping up a UK tour.
"We fight enough between the three of us -- we don't need somebody else to throw their ideas into the mix. We want the songs to come across the way they do live, so we don't add a lot of extra instrumentation. We don't have big string sections or sequenced drum parts or anything like that.
"Our style of production is the opposite of production. It's unproduction."
Whatever it is, it works.
The group's new Chinatown disc charms with its lack of pretension. Remarkably, it's even more laid-back than Blue Horse, heavy on ballads that amble along at a leisurely pace. The original tunes are breathtaking (Frazey Ford delivers a powerful double whammy with Junkie Song and In Spite Of All The Damage, both striking expressions of longing and regret), but it's the trio's ability to completely inhabit other people's material that amazes.
Traditional gospel and folk tunes prickle with hair-raising honesty. House Of The Rising Sun comes off as a slinky BGT original, while lead singer Ford breathes through Townes Van Zandt's Waiting Around To Die as if she's cryin' over her own hard-luck life.
Klein agrees that the band's interpretative knack hints at a deep understanding of the music's legacy.
"It's hard not to be aware of the historical weight the songs carry. You start thinking about migrant workers during the Depression or pioneers struggling to survive on the harsh land, and how they'd sit around playing the fiddle or dodgy old banjos made of goatskin. This music has withstood the test of time, which is pretty moving for a performer or an audience."
Maybe that long-term perspective makes it easier for the Be Good Tanyas to justify taking time off. After they finish touring to promote Chinatown, the band will be on hold for a year, which could disappoint fans, considering all the raves they're snagging both in the UK and at home.
Klein insists the hiatus is due less to intra-band tension or an uncertain future than to a very pregnant Ford's impending mamadom.
"She's definitely excited about her child -- it's become her main focus. I think she's ready for a little break from performing, but maybe she'll be back into it once she's had some time and the initial excitement of being a mother wears off.
"It's really healthy that we're having this break. It wasn't premeditated, but we need some space and time to travel separately and renew our own spirits. And who knows what'll happen after a year? Maybe people will have all kinds of new material or inspiration, or maybe Frazey will want to go off and do something else or be a mom.
"I don't want to say that this is the end, 'cause people are so excited about it, but we aren't predicting what's gonna happen."firstname.lastname@example.org