It's rare to come across a roots artist as ripe for crossover as Ontario folksinger Jenny Whiteley. While largely working within bluegrass, her sound encompasses a diverse array of musical touchstones, including jazz, pop and country.
On her fourth solo release, 'Forgive or Forget,' Whiteley skilfully draws on that palette, blending together sounds like a painter dabbling in different hues. While many of her songs of love and renewal veer into darker shades, they're balanced out by equally bright tunes featuring a rousing lick of banjo or strummy guitar melody.
If Whiteley's sweetly melodic voice sounds reminiscent of Stars' chanteuse Amy Millan's rootsy solo work, that's not surprising. Not only has Millan covered Whiteley's songs on her records, but the pair harmonize so effortlessly that Whiteley has often sung backing vocals during Millan's live shows.
Fans of Millan will find much to admire in 'Forgive or Forget,' which showcases Whiteley's skill as both singer and songwriter. She draws on folk music's storytelling tradition to pen love songs that manage to sketch out the realities and fragility of human relationships, not only the trite or maudlin expressions that often masquerade as astute observations in the current musical landscape.
On the surface, the jaunty 'Ripple Effect' appears to be yet another guileless, wide-eyed tune about the breathless beginnings of infatuation. "Dawn would continue to be chased by the moon / But I couldn't live without you," Whiteley sighs in the chorus -- even throwing in a little "woo-hoo!" kicker at the end for good measure. But her lovestruck narrator isn't naive -- in the very next breath, there's a hard-won wariness lurking underneath. "It's a ripple effect and we all get wet / It's important to know, I try not to forget."
Dawson lets the arrangement breathe despite the many layers of instrumentation that veer in and out of the mix -- a mandolin solo here, jauntily brushed drums there, all anchored by a killer twangy Southern-style electric-guitar line. (Her band includes some of Canada's leading roots players who have previously played with Sarah Harmer, Po'Girl, the Be Good Tanyas and many others).
Coming up on Valentine's Day, with all the empty commercialism that Hallmark holiday has to offer, Whiteley's song reminds the listener that true love is more than just hearts and flowers -- it's also about remembering the past to make way for the future.