The Wakami Wailers,
River Through the Pines
(self-produced, 1999)

Just as a pristine old-growth forest is treasured, the Wakami Wailers have aged well. Since their 1985 release, Last of the White Pine Loggers, their voices have found a comfortable camaraderie and the instrumental expertise has expanded. The 1999 release River Through the Pines features 15 diverse songs and one story that are well worth a listen.

Again, the Celtic influence is obvious and delightful. The opening ballad, "Jimmy Judge," makes fine use of the traditional Irish tune "Star of the County Down" as it tells the sad tale of Jimmy's watery doom. "Blue Mountain Lake" shares its influences with its familiar chorus of "Derry down, down, down derry down."

The a capella song "50,000 Lumberjacks" made me a believer in lumberjacks and in this CD. The voices of Rob Hollett, Mark Despault and Mike Bernier blend beautifully in this tribute to the 1917 strike which, according to the liner notes, made lumbering a respected profession. The chorus is one that logs in to your brain and won't let go for weeks. Everyone to whom I've subjected this song has had a strong reaction, including a group of teens who've made it the theme song of their writing class. The young converts also ask for "The Town of Brandywine," with its simple and compelling melody, lamenting an eternal love that ended too soon. Andy Thompson's piano reinforces the melancholy beauty of this piece.

"The Frozen Logger" is a tall tale of another unfortunate lumberjack who, despite his amazing size and strength, succumbed to the 100-degrees-below-zero weather. It also involves lost love and inadvertent spousal abuse such as "He held me in his fond embrace which broke three vertebrae." The rhyme is a bit corny, but it captures the heroic image of the loving, almost inconquerable lumberjack, unaware of his own extraordinary power.

Picking up the pace, "White Water," an original tune by Wade Hemsworth, bounces along like a log on the river and each chorus features the harmonies of the Wailers. "Hurry Up Harry" features a new melody by Hollett for "The Lumbercamp Song" and a lively bodhran driving the tempo. "The Shantyboy's Alphabet" reminds us in the chorus that it is another "merry" song -- though it bothers me that the alphabet only extends to "W." Despault's original "The Fairie Blonde" recreates that famous alligator boat (reconstructed and on display in the Logging Museum at Wakami Lake Provincial Park in Ontario) and makes fine use of the Wakami Wailers' wonderful harmonies.

One of my favorite selections, "Ye Noble White Pine Tree," breaks from the themes of dangerous log jams and fun times around the camp to tell the story of one tree's journey from the forest to a prairie farmhouse. A beautiful tribute, it is a love song to this glorious, ill-fated tree.

The CD finale is "The Legend of the Durgarvon Whooper," by raconteur Jeff Allen. Although it is wonderfully told, I miss the instrumental accompaniment that complemented Allen's previous tale.

Through out the songs, the musicianship is evident, especially Bernier's fiddle and mandolin, Thompson's keyboards and Andrew Affleck's contributions on bass. The liner notes provide interesting details about the songs' origins rather than highlight individual performances.

Overall, there's nothing wooden about River Through the Pines, a celebration of the music, lives, loves and revels of the men who toiled in the pines each winter.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]