Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from the Be Good Tanyas website

By Ken Cox
(December 2006)

Adherents to the postmodernist philosophy tend to embrace nostalgia. Video catalogs are filled with TV shows transferred to DVD – shows that were in existence as far back as the 1960's. Perhaps there's a tension that there is no absolute truth and everyone’s opinion should be equally embraced, which is relieved by going back to a time when problems were solved in twenty minutes plus commercials. The CD reissue market grows larger each day as a desire to hear music from a bygone era exists. Supposedly, times were better then – simpler, more rational, and less threatened by nuclear holocaust and local crime waves. The postmodernists need look no farther than Vancouver, British Columbia to get the purest modern/old-timey/roots music available. The Be Good Tanyas have let themselves shine out in the darkness of the music realm. What they sing about, oddly enough, makes America the pluralistic, multi-faceted, musically foundational country she is.

This trio – Sam (Samantha) Parton, Frazey Ford, and Trish Klein – got their name from a song by music pioneer Obo Martin ("Be Good Tanya") and now have three albums to their credit along with having a song or two in movies such as Because of Winn Dixie. There was, actually, an earlier Be Good Tanya – folk artist Jolie Holland, part songwriter, musician, and existentialist with a fiddle. But rambling blues bit her and bit her hard and she moved on to obtain solo status although she is featured with buddy Sam in the Tanyas’ newest album Hello Love on a Mississippi John Hurt tune, "Nobody Cares for Me."

Sam has the softest voice of the three – think of her as a feminine "Whispering" Bill Anderson. Her love for the blues comes striding forth in every project – from albums Blue Horse and Chinatown (not the town of the movie or the famous location, but a small spot near Tanyaland). Sexy and smart, she holds a copy of a D.H. Lawrence book on the back cover of an early project; literature by Zora Neale Hurston appeals to her as well. Her songwriting focuses on subjective realism – the death of a beloved dog, Sherpa; a lost lover who appears at a distance but never approaches her; a brother who comes back home to his sister’s home because his addiction has decimated him. On video that can be seen at The Be Good Tanya’s website on MySpace, the raven-haired beauty prances around boldly in contrast to her quiet demeanor. Sam is not content to be placed in a musical box of stereotypical behavior.

Frazey Ford is the maternal one in the group – literally having a baby during the group’s recent hiatus. She often sings lead on Tanya projects and sings passionately at that. Frazey is comfortable singing traditional blues and even old-fashioned gospel-type numbers: "Out of the Wilderness" and "I Wonder What They’re Doing in Heaven Today" from their Hello Love CD. In fact, Frazey wrote the title song and co-writes with her other two compatriots. She also can belt out "House of the Rising Sun" from the Chinatown CD. Frazey is the Mick Jagger of folk/roots/American music as her enunciation is often hard to decipher- usually, you can't figure out what Frazey is singing unless one has a lyric sheet nearby. She claims that it is a genetic occurrence – a trait existing in family members long before her. Therefore, the songstress is not oblivious to such an observation and freely admits her phrasing is not intended to be a role model for diction. Like Jagger, such enunciation does provide a mysterious quality to The Be Good Tanyas sound. Nonetheless, this powerhouse is a presence not to be dismissed.

Of the three, Trish Klein is the quietest, providing harmony vocals. However, she is the instrumentalist par excellence in the group. All three play but Trish is the foundation of the musical underbelly of the group’s sound. She is so proficient that she was a member of a group called PoGirls and came out with a CD from that group during the hiatus while Frazey was giving birth and the members were scattered in various locations. Trish can play anything with a string attached to it and make beautiful music burst forth. The pony-tailed performer is integral to the trio but she is content with providing sound over which Sam and Frazey soar.

Some have called these three anachronistic – they dress in outfits that hearken back to the Roaring Twenties; their Chinatown cover is decorated with Tetley Tea graphics from long ago. Perhaps they are neoclassicists; perhaps they are pacifistic postmodernists; perhaps they just love the old songs and love writing and singing new songs that just sound old. It is amazing that a group from Vancouver, British Columbia shows Americans what their own music sounds like. The Be Good Tanyas make modernly nostalgic music; one listen to any of their projects (especially the Stephen Foster song "Oh, Susanna" on Blue Horse) and one is hooked permanently.

If someone's looking for traditional American sounds that return to the Jimmie Rodgers/Carter Family era, he or she can find those sounds in this trio. If a person longs for sparse instrumentation along with voices that do not bellow or boast, he or she can find musical peace with these three ladies. If a person wants to hear performers who embrace the folk, country, and blues roots of American music with a little touch of the contemporary, then The Be Good Tanyas are voices that come out of the wilderness and onto center stage, performing music that transcends their birthdates and transports their listeners from the past to the present and vice-versa. Sam, Frazey, and Trish are an open-ended musical time capsule in suspended animation – out of the wilderness and into CD speakers and human ears – awaiting a musical feast.

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