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The Be Good Tanyas 

Chinatown

Wednesday, Mar 19 2003
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Folk music, perhaps more than any other genre, walks a fine line between the impishly clever and the cloyingly precious. On the first Be Good Tanyas album, 2001's Blue Horse, the Vancouver all-gal trio teetered over both sides of the divide, not quite stumbling but wobbly enough to raise a few eyebrows. With this year's follow-up, the moody, magnificent Chinatown, the band gains more solid footing, penning stronger material while self-producing the album, perfecting a trip hop/folk style with a uniquely disjointed sensibility.

The Tanyas deploy old-timey instruments in an unusually relaxed manner, plunking banjos at a loping gait and sawing a lazy fiddle, while offering a few funk-laced guitar riffs and unexpected modern touches. The players display little of the drag-racing flash and fire of the traditional bluegrass scene; indeed, the band's low-key, minimalist approach makes it consistently listenable and alluring.

Chinatown finds the group developing its own repertoire, a welcome change from the awkward, incongruous cover tunes that studded its last album. The introspective songwriting -- which ranges from standard romantic themes to the title track's lament over Vancouver's current heroin problem -- places the band squarely in the Lilith Fair confessional-pop camp, while a few well-chosen folk covers (notably Peter Rowan's obscure but sublime "Midnight Moonlight") score its members major authenticity points. Sadly, the Tanyas seem unwilling to shed the mumbly voiced acoustic-soul murmuring that all three singers have apparently copped from Ani DiFranco. Such an unfortunate affectation muddles the group's otherwise refreshingly direct, original presentation. Then again, DiFranco has legions of fans whose loyalty could directly transfer to this like-minded trio, ensuring at the very least that the band's comfy melodies will cast a comfortable glow on a thousand coffeehouses across the land.

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Lawrence Kay

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