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Music Review: The ChoirGirlz – Girl Time!

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Every time I play this CD, the final song comes far earlier than I might have hoped. This release is a sweet confection — like my mother's divinity fudge, rich and delightful, and addictive. At only 41 minutes long, this set leaves the listener wanting more, lots more, of this tasty treat. Debbie Fleming, Mary Ellen Moore, and Dorothy McDonall each have a lifetime of experience and it shows. Together, they are wonderful. This is perhaps the finest a capella singing trio in Canada.

On this release, The ChoirGirlz are only a capella for one song. On the rest of the songs, they are supported by members of the Canadian western swing band Bebop Cowboys. In part because the vocals are set against this Bob Wills ambience and in part because of some of the lyrics and vocal arrangements, at times I feel as though I'm listening to a reissue of an album from 1953.

Some listeners might compare this trio to fellow Canadians Quartette (Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford, Gwen Swick, and Sylvia Tyson) or to the American Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstadt). When I first listened to these songs, I was transported back in time some fifty years. At first, and now after listening several times, I'm reminded most of The Dinning Sisters, who had perhaps the longest successful career of any singing sister act, from Thirties Jazz to Fifties Rock & Roll. When listening to a couple of these songs, I'm also reminded of the British vocal group The Seekers.

There's a definite country music feel here, but the sound evokes the country music of mid-century, before rockabilly started to take hold and subtly change the music. It's quiet music with a comfortable ambience that brings back those old times when the world was less dangerous.

Ten of the eleven songs on this release were written either by Debbie Fleming or by Fleming in partnership with her two singing partners. Listening to the CD, it soon becomes clear the talent in this group transcends singing and harmonizing and extends to composing and arranging and writing lyrics. In fact, all of the lyrics are tightly written and expressive, ranging from humourous tales to touching family reminiscences.

It's not obvious at first, but there's a weird selection of songs on this CD. Of course, it may be just a Canadian thing or it may be that I spent far too much time watching Canadian children's TV with my kids. While some of the songs are quite adult and some even tend toward a certain darkness, others tend to be what I would call "Sharon, Lois, and Bram" songs, the sort of song these performers would perform on The Elephant Show. "Favourite Book," "Good Ol' Jim," and "Chocolate" especially have this feeling and, while it's a bit more esoteric, "See BC" comes close. With these kiddie-crossover songs, moving adult songs, dark foreboding songs, and a gospel hymn all included, I'm impressed how consistent and unified this set seems.

While I enjoyed all of the songs on this release, both for the excellent vocals and harmonies, and also for reasons individual to each song, two of the more serious songs stood out as special favourites: "Tennessee Waltz" and "Back to the Light."

"Tennessee Waltz" was on the hit parade when I was only five or six years old. So, believe it or not, was the gruesome "Waltzing Mathilda" by, I think, Mitch Miller. In my young mind, I somehow confused and combined the two songs. So I had a couple waltzing on the big patio of an antebellum mansion, then breaking up, after which the man (or the woman, sometimes) wanders off into the surrounding darkness and is murdered beneath a tree by the billabong. Although most covers of "Tennessee Waltz" present this as a sweet love song [it is not], The ChoirGirlz sing it with a certain dark sorrow, enhanced by the mournful violin of Drew Jurecka. Immediately following the bridge, the dark closes in as the most bitter verse of all is sung with all the sorrow of "The Long Black Veil" and sets the song up to end in a very "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" mood.

While I enjoy the music of the Bebop Cowboys and it certainly adds to my pleasure listening to ten of these songs, where these three singers really shine is on a capella harmonies. The final song in the set, "Back to the Light," is the only a capella song on this release. This is a very old-fashioned, traditional gospel song written by Debbie Fleming. It reminds me very much of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" or several of the Carter Family's gospel songs. On this recording, the song is delivered in a very reverent, sincere fashion that makes it the ideal song to close out the set.

The second CD released by The ChoirGirlz, this one is a very special treat for anyone who enjoys sweet harmonies, country music with a bit of swing, or just plain excellent playing and singing. Just be warned, like divinity fudge, the ChoirGirlz may be addictive.

Discover everything you want to know about Debbie Fleming, Mary Ellen Moore, and Dorothy McDonall at The Choir Girlz Official Website. Go to their MySpace profile to hear three songs from this new release.

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