Banjo player/songwriter Ruth Moody – one-third of perennially popular all-female Americana roots trio the Wailin’ Jennys – has just released a new album, These Wilder Things, her second as a bandleader. It’s excellent for so many reasons. First is David Travers-Smith’s purist but lush production: many of the songs follow a familiar trajectory from a skeletal intro and then bring in the instruments one by one until there’s a fullscale bluegrass orchestra motoring along. As one would expect from a member of the Wailin’ Jennys, the songwriting is strong – Tift Merritt comes to mind – and the playing is tremendous.
The opening cut, Trouble & Woe, a stark gospel-flavored minor-key banjo tune, is basically the Wailin’ Jennys since the whole band’s on it. As it picks up steam, the bandleader’s brother Richard Moody’s viola and Adrian Dolan’s fiddle join with Sam Howard’s bass, the viola firing off a nonchalantly searing solo as it winds out. One And Only, a gently swaying country song, blends delicious layers of slow-burning electric guitar from Adam Dobres, rising and falling around a tersely biting slide guitar solo.
Where so many others have failed, Moody pretty much succeeds at reinventing the old Springsteen radio hit Dancing in the Dark as sprightly seductive retro acoustic swing a la Lake Street Dive. The title track takes the volume down with Moody’s pensively airy vocals over hypnotic gospel-tinged piano: “We can’t be tamed, these wilder things,” she insists quietly. She keeps things hushed and ethereal with the brooding, restless Trees for Skies, while Mark Knopfler gives a clinic in terse multitracking on the even more brooding Pockets: “We took the roads most would avoid,” Moody asserts, unintimidated by anything that might imply.
The spare piano waltz Make a Change evocatively builds an evocative calm-before-the-storm ambience, pedal steel lingering in the background. One Light Shining blends Dolan’s mandolin with guest Jerry Douglas’ dobro, followed by the delicate, Celtic-flavored Life Is Long and then the quietly elegant, similarly low-key Nothing Without Love, a big anthem stripped to just the essentials. Moody will be on tour this summer; watch this space for possible NYC dates.