Tanglefoot,
Full Throated Abandon
(Borealis, 1999)

Tanglefoot, a five-piece Ontario band built on the foundations of a 1980s trio of the same name (only one member, Joe Grant, was in the original group), has reclaimed its traditional heritage with the release of Full Throated Abandon. The album's 14 tracks draw heavily on the Scots-Irish and oldtime influences which dominate so much of Canada's music, presenting a nice package for anyone who enjoys folk songs and good stories.

The album is well-stocked with story-songs, all originals by various band members, and Tanglefoot infuses each with passion for the tale. Each of the band's five members takes turns singing lead, and the others fill in nicely with tight instrumentals and harmonic vocals.

The storytelling begins with "One More Night," which describes how the decision of a ship's captain to spend one more night with his lover (and a whole lot of gin) before setting sail across Lake Superior with a load of coal caused the collapse of a silver mining industry. Bartlett bassist Al Parrish sings the part of the captain. Then singer and guitarist Steve Ritchie relates in great detail the dramatic turn-around of a 1921 hockey game, Wiarton vs. Stratford, in "Seven a Side."

The slow song "Emmeline" is about the last lighthouse keeper at Pointe au Baril, who kept the lighthouse running alone for years after her husband died and her children moved away. Fiddler Joe Grant sings her story. Then Steve returns to give voice to "Jenny Wren" and the notion of dancing with the devil. A lively barn-dance fiddle soars in time, the devil himself makes an appearance and spins some rhymes, but the heroine of this tale holds onto her soul just the same.

"Let the Piper Play" is the musical voyage of the first Scottish settlers who sailed about The Hector to Nova Scotia in 1773, sung by Al. Then the good-natured "McCurdy's Boy" tells of another voyage, the first flight in Canada in 1909, accomplished by Douglas McCurdy despite his tendency to crash his car. The light-hearted tone of the song is carried by Francis Skrzeszewski on the tenor banjo, who also sings this one, and Rob Ritchie on piano.

Joe has a personal stake in singing "Stubborn Old Heart," which tells of his brother's plight after suffering severe injuries while cutting trees along in the woods. Then Al takes back the microphone to sing a story of a witch who inhabited the spirit of a goose while enforcing a curse on an Ontario family in "The Baldoon Goose."

Rob sings his first song, the sad and lovely "Minnie's Lullaby," based on his experiences back in college working in a home for the elderly. Steve's whistle adds a particularly nice air to the tune. Then Joe, leading on vocals and banjo, sings a happy song about the government house in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where confiscated alcohol was stored until being poured down the drain by a 12-year-old boy -- an older pourer, it is suspected, would drink as much as he pours -- and the people who bribe the boy to know when the valuable liquor will be rushing down the drain so they can tap it and reclaim their cheer.

"The Angel of Long Point," sung by Steve, tells of Abigail Becker, a tall, strong woman who rescued shipwrecked sailors from the treacherous waters of Lake Erie. Then Joe sings a lively romp called "The Floating Bridge of Ennismore," based on a true tale of the old parish priest who blessed the bridge but placed a curse on alcohol. The song ponders the difficulty of carrying cursed alcohol over the blessed bridge, and wonders which will prove the stronger.

"Buxton," written by Rob and sung by Steve, is a powerful, angry song about the town of Buxton in southwestern Ontario, which was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad. Despite newfound freedom, former slaves can find it hard to lose their anger, and the escaped man in this song acts out his fury on a fiddle. The album ends with "Paper Dragon," written by Joe and sung by Al, which paints a peaceful, homey picture with a child's toys.

Full Throated Abandon is a grand piece of recording, demonstrating how nicely a band's members can cooperate to put out an excellent album without ceding the spotlight to any one member. Tanglefoot works as an ensemble here, and the listeners reap the reward.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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