Roots music – in this case traditional folk music – is not for everybody. I’ll preface this review with that observation. But if you are a true fan, there is something very soul-satisfying about the genre of music that draws you to it time and time again. And if you’re just looking for an alternative to the pop and rock you might normally listen to, dip your toes in…the water is fine. The self-titled debut album by The Wynnes from Prince Edward Island may – provided you give it a chance – win you over in the same way the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” got the general public listening to and even singing songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow.” If you are familiar with that song, I bet you’re singing it in your head right now.
The Wynnes’ sound is a mix of Bluegrass and Folk, suited more to a county fair than a big City or even a big stage. Musically, it’s more confection than full course meal, but that’s no reason to disregard it. In fact, it may be the very reason to embrace it. It isn’t heavy and thankfully lacks pretention, and that could be what makes it more approachable to the public. There are certain strengths and a definite consistency to this album. Let’s dive in.
The first track is called “I Hear Them All.” I really enjoy the instrumental interplay here, with the mandolin, guitar and bass all working well to support the vocals. The song is Bluegrass flavoured with a hint of Country. The harmonies of Peter and Barb Wynne blend very well, and are a real strength on this recording. This is toe-tapping music in the best sense of the phrase. It gets your blood pumping and you feel like hearing more, so in that respect the song is a good way to kick off the album.
“Wayne” is the next song, and in my mind it unfortunately takes away from the good start the album had because it’s a bit confusing. Here’s why. The lead singer on the track is Peter Wynne even though it appears the story in the song is told from a female perspective. It’s just weird to hear a guy sing “Flower Sundress, called me Princess, his love and child grew in me.” And despite the fact that it is a story song, it really doesn’t pull me in like it should, and I trace that back at least in part to the previously mentioned confusion. It’s a ‘somebody done somebody wrong’ song, but I don’t find myself buying in. That said, the vocals and instrumentation are strong, especially the work of Gordie MacKeeman on fiddle.
Song three, entitled “Down Roads,” gets the album back on the right path. The mandolin and fiddle move this traveling song along nicely, but Peter’s strong vocal performance is what really carries this number. I like this tune, and it’s probably the place for listeners looking to ease themselves in to this style of music to start. It has a sing-along quality to it as well as an undeniable charm. When Barb Wynne joins in for the harmonies, you feel as if you want to join them in the sing along. There is a little bit of Country swing at play here, which adds to the down home feel of the track.
“Best Dancer” gives Barb a chance to show off her vocal chops in a lead role, and she handles the challenge with aplomb. The fiddle is the instrumental bright light in this tune. That said, it is more than complemented by Peter Wynne’s solid guitar work. While this is a serviceable track, it lacks the necessary elements to kick it up a few notches to make it truly memorable. So on we go…
The next song, “It Takes Time,” features some nice energy. The vocal harmonies and the guitar work stand out here, although overall at this point the album is starting to sound too similar from track to track, and that takes away from some otherwise strong performances. Barb brings some nice bass work into the mix. This is an infectious little number, and fits snugly into the top three tunes on the album in my opinion.
There was a time in this fair land when railroad songs were a trump card a folk singer could pull out to get the audience on side. After all, what offers more romance than life on the rails? Okay, life on the high seas, but Folkies worth their salt had to have those songs in their repertoire as well. That’s why the next song, “Freight Train,” is exactly the kind of song you’d expect to find on an album such as this. The Wynnes do well to keep the sub-genre alive to the point where it could make you wonder just why you don’t hear many railroad songs anymore. And don’t give me that whole ‘dying-form-of-transportation’ guff. As Gordon Lightfoot reminded us (wow, TWO Gordon Lightfoot references in the same paragraph! I’m fired for sure!) ‘You can’t jump a jet plane/Like you can a freight train.’ Railroad romance aside, this is a catchy tune and works well in the context of the album.
Sometimes the downfall of any given song doesn’t lie in the writing, the singing or the instrumentation, but instead with the presentation. That seems to me to be the case with the song “Hello.” In my mind, the delivery is a little too peppy for the subject matter. “Hello” is a song of loneliness and despair. However, if you ignored the lyrics, this is a perfect song for the tapping of toes and the clapping of hands. Way too upbeat considering you’re tapping and clapping to words such as “I got a song about a boy who’s grieving.” It is a well played song mind you, but musically it’s like putting the ‘fun’ in funeral.
“Methamphetamine” is another case where The Wynnes tackle a difficult, heart-wrenching subject in song. For the most part they succeed, although I have one concern with the lyrics. It boils down to one line, and let me start by saying that if you chose to do a song dealing with drugs – especially horrible, highly-addictive, life crushing drugs such as Meth – the last thing you ever should do is give anyone a reason to think the drug is cool. That’s why the line “It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane” may not have been the best choice of words. I know that was never the song writer’s intention, although I can’t help but wonder if someone with a less than fully formed intellect might add the line in question and “Methamphetamine” together in their mind and comes up with the idea that doing Meth is a good thing. After all, isn’t the Scorpions “Rock You Like A Hurricane” a great tune? Making tragically incorrect mental leaps about the dangers or lack thereof when it comes to certain drugs based on misinterpretations of songs isn’t normal. But on Meth it is!
“Wagon Wheel” is a pretty song, and one of the best on the album. Once again, Barb Wynne handles lead vocals with Peter harmonizing. This is a good story song held aloft with the help of buoyant guitar and mandolin interplay with a side order of fiddle to add colour and dimension. James Phillips does a masterful job on the mandolin to keep things rolling. The tune bounces along like a slow ride on the tailgate of a pickup truck down a dirt road. And that’s a good thing.
It seems The Wynnes buried the lead on this album. The very last track may indeed be the strongest. “Bulkey Valley Home” opens with terrific harmonies from Peter and Barb, then quickly turns into a hoedown. The musicians earn their keep on this number, with guitar, fiddle and mandolin galloping along in this fast paced number. The only thing that was missing was a hearty ‘Yee-haw!’ It’s a great way to end the album, although the tune could have been placed closer to the start to no ill effect. The bottom line is that the album ends on a high note and will undoubtedly leave the listener smiling.
Folk, Bluegrass and Country purists may have trouble reconciling this album – it doesn’t fit squarely into any particular musical niche – but the average listener should enjoy it if they give it a chance. As a debut album, it certainly serves to show The Wynnes are a musical force to be reckoned with. You can find their music here: http://thewynnes.ca
Have a listen if you would like to get back to your musical roots. Or just check them out if your roots need a little colouring. Either way, you may discover The Wynnes have a win on their hands.
Top Tracks: “Bulkey Valley Home”; “Wagon Wheel”; “It Takes Time”
Rating: Proud Hoot (really good)