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After a four-year hiatus, The Be Good Tanyas are back with A Collection, a career-spanning retrospective album that includes tracks from their three studio albums, as well as two new songs. As seems fitting from a retrospective, A Collection doesn’t break new ground even on its new tracks, but it’s a welcome return from a well-loved Americana group as they begin touring again.
The Be Good Tanyas formed in Vancouver in 1999, playing old folk standards at open mic nights while they worked planting trees. Their original lineup included Jolie Holland, but she left to pursue a solo career, and now the group consists of Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton, and Trish Klein. All share vocal harmonies and also play instruments including the guitar, banjo, and mandolin. From the release of their first album, Blue Horse, in 2000, the group was praised for their tight vocal harmonies and the way they brought together the traditional and the modern in their folk/roots/Americana sound. They covered standards such as “Oh! Susanna” as well as writing their own songs, acting as a sort of tribute band to the past.
The Be Good Tanyas followed Blue Horse with 2003′s Chinatown, and Hello Love in 2006. Both were critically praised and gave them a strong following. However, they took a hiatus in 2008 while members worked on solo projects. A Collection comes along with a string of festival dates which mark their return to touring, and are hopefully a sign of new releases to come.
The sixteen tracks on A Collection span all three Be Good Tanyas releases. They have said that the choices for the set were based mostly on popularity, and that both band members and record label executives were largely in agreement as to which songs to choose to best represent their career. The new tracks, “Little Black Bear” and “Gospel Song,” are a welcome glimpse into the potential future of the Be Good Tanyas. They feature the same intricately woven vocal harmonies (each member has their own distinctive voice, and the three meld together remarkably well) and delicate melodies we’ve come to expect from them. With such a retro-leaning group, there’s never going to be much of a change in sound from album to album, but the new songs do show new depths of songwriting talent after four years of practicing independently from each other.
As for the older tracks, the standout here is “Oh! Susanna,” one of the first songs that gained them recognition after their first album. Neil Young and Crazy Horse recently recorded a version of the classic, and it’s interesting to compare the two. While the folk standard is fun and enjoyable through both renditions, the Be Good Tanyas’ take on it shows off their true genius; they are able to take a song that everyone knows and make it entirely new and unique with their raw vocal talent and a seemingly effortless gift for harmonies. In a way, A Collection is a perfect introduction to anyone who’s new to the Be Good Tanyas. It looks both forward and backward, to new material and back on old favorites, and perfectly captures the spirit of the group. In spite of the four-year hiatus, they seem (and have always seemed) timeless.