Not only are the Be Good Tanyas an example of what the country music world would be like if the Dixie Chicks were far, far better than they are, but they offer the buyer of Chinatown
the full, feel-good package. From opening chord to closing harmony, Chinatown
is filled with gothic shocks, plaintive cries, drinking, the Lord, relationships gone sour, and New Orleans (there's even an honest-to-God song about the singer's dog dying. Somebody call the stereotype police). The three women who make up the band have voices and country chops that wouldn't embarrass the Carter family, and their songwriting and interpretation skills are top notch.
All of this, from three women who seem to have come together through pure, blind musical serendipity. The band's bio is practically unmatched in terms of folksy, rootsy honesty. According to their website, "they first met in the mountains of BC, at tree-planting camps and open-stages. After traveling separately they met again one particularly dark rainy, dismal winter in Vancouver." I mean, seriously, trade BC for Milledgeville, GA, and you've got yourself a trio of Flannery O'Connor heroines.
Chinatown strikes a lyrical balance, gazing unflinchingly at the darker sides of life but never surrendering to them. In "The Junkie Song", Frazey Ford sings of seeing all of the hopeless and helpless addicts in her neighborhood: while she despairs at the enormity of the problem, she reminds herself that "we all live here, we all live here". Their cover of Townes Van Zandt's haunting "Waiting Around To Die" is both a beautiful homage to a seminal influence and a harrowing reminder of his tragic death. The traditional songs they choose include "House of the Rising Sun" and "In My Time of Dying", but it would be wrong to assume that morbidity and dissolution are the full spectrum of emotional evocations the group has to offer. Granted, none of the other emotions are any more cheerful than the first two, but the subtle colors of sadness, grief, and "ness", both loneli- and wistful-, create a full (if dire) spectrum of feelings.
The instrumentation is centered on the various stringed instruments the Tanyas and most of their guest musicians play, though they have also employed accordion, trumpet and drums to stirring effect at various points on the record. The result is both traditional and forward-looking, and it seems almost redundant to mention that everyone who picks up any musical device on this record is quietly brilliant with said instrument.
It's sad, sometimes, for me to see how disproportionately country music seems to be aggregating musical and lyrical proficiency these days. While many rock and electronic groups amble pleasantly along without a musical thought in their heads, country's combination of tradition and musicianship just keeps producing albums, like Chinatown, of a really tremendous caliber.