Wed, Jul 4, 2012.
When Newfoundland's Ennis Sisters started out in the '90's, they were very young, and very talented. Over the years, as predicted, that developed, to the point that they are one of the region's top acts, festival favourites, and as one of the leading touring groups, great ambassadors for the area, traveling constantly across the continent, and to such spots as Ireland and Australia. Things have changed along the way, as sister Teresa left for her own career, and the remaining duo of Maureen and Karen became known as simply Ennis. Now, they enter a new phase in their recording career, with the release next week of their latest, The Fortunate Ones.
For the first time, the group has the reigns themselves. Along with their touring musicians and collaborators in the group, it's largely self-composed and definitely self-produced. Maureen Ennis, who is refered to as the "musical visionary" of the group, co-produced along with her songwriting partner Mark Murphy. Together, they also wrote six of the eleven tracks. Billy Sutton from their touring group engineered and played lots of different instruments as well. Of course, sister Karen handled some leads, harmonies and added more instruments. They see it as a culmination of all they've learned over the fifteen years or so of making records and touring.
The key songs on the album are two of Maureen and Murphy's compositions. The country-folk number Rise Up Winds states the theme that sums up the group's career and their connection to Newfoundland: "We are tomorrow made from yesterday/living on stoney shallow soil". Ennis's songs are rooted to the traditions they learned as children, music-making that streches back generations, and they almost effortlessly find ways to move forward, creating a sound that is instantly recognizable as traditional, but has plenty of current themes. You'll find that sung clearly in the title track, The Fortunate Ones, with a melody and instruments, including whistle and accordian, that could have been made a century ago. But the song is about all the people who have had to leave the Island over the past couple of decades, for Alberta or wherever, as the fishery dies. It speaks of children now growing up that only know Newfoundland as the place they vacation, and grandparents with tears in their eyes when they leave. Their can't be a more modern lyric than, "There's only so long you can protest and plead/when you've got a family to feed."
There's fun on the album as well, including a rollicking tune supplied and produced by pal Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea. It's called Ladies Lounge, about those old taverns in the days when women had to have their own beverage rooms. The band gets to show off on an instrumental number, with Karen on whistle, called Kiss The Maid Behind The Barrel Set. Inspired covers include the old Dylan heart-tugger about his son Jakob, Forever Young, and the sisters look to Newfoundland's own reigning bard, Ron Hynes for a track. Thank goodness, it's not another cover of Sonny's Dream, there's enough of them. This one is the lesser-known but typically poignant Hynes number Ivory Keys, about an accordian player.
To me though, the greatest pleasure is the quality of the six original tunes. Ennis has always been known as a vocal group, but that perception may change with a couple of songwriting awards, because this collection deserves them.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).