35. Light Enough to Travel – The Be Good Tanyas

Album cover of Blue Horse by The Be Good Tanyas

It’s the year 2000, and we find ourselves unexpectedly spending a night on the tiles, and on the booze:

Wound up drunk again on Robson Street
Strange ‘cos we always agreed
At the start of every evening
That’s the last place I wanna be

That’s Robson Street in Vancouver, Canada, home town of the very wonderful Be Good Tanyas.

Singer Frazey Ford’s incomparable voice is at its addictive best here: simultaneously vulnerable yet determined, she’s audibly het up at finding herself in this situation. She hopes the evening won’t take a further turn for the worse:

Promise me we won’t go into the nightclub
I feel so fucked up when I’m in there

Frazey really does not want to go into that nightclub:

Promise me we won’t go into the nightclub
I really think that it’s obscene
What kind of people go to meet people
Someplace they can’t be heard or seen?

It’s a question that has puzzled Threehundredsongs for many years, to be fair.

Light Enough to Travel hails from the Tanyas’ debut LP Blue Horse. The album was initially self-released in Canada alone in 2000, before a remastered version was given a formal release in the US and beyond by Nettwerk Records in 2001.

Reputedly recorded on a minimal budget in a shed somewhere in or around Vancouver, the album has a pleasingly handmade feel throughout: there’s a bluegrassy, old-timey vibe with fittingly stripped-down instrumentation featuring acoustic guitars, mandolin and the inevitable banjo. There are a handful of traditional songs on there (Lakes of Ponchartrain, The Coo Coo Bird et al.) along with the quasi-traditional Oh! Susanna [1].

Within the context of Blue Horse, and with its driving rhythms and eminently singable chorus, Light Enough to Travel has “single” written all over it, but no. Bewilderingly, the song was was never released as such, the only track on the album to garner that honour being the reasonably charming The Littlest Birds. Regardless, Light Enough… is a thumping musical romp, and it’s also a masterclass in writing a proper, grown-up song using only two chords.

As for the refrain:

Keep it light enough to travel
Don’t let it all unravel
Keep it light enough to travel

I’ve been listening to the song for a couple of decades, yet must admit I don’t really know what keeping it light enough to travel means. I guess it’s open to interpretation: I take it to mean not getting overly emotionally committed to a situation, thereby facilitating an easier escape. Which, conversely, might be literally what it means, since:

I had to throw down my accordion
To get away from the police

What this all has to do with nightclubs remains unclear to me.


The Tanyas subsequently released two further albums: Chinatown in 2003, and Hello Love in 2006. As with Blue Horse, each album yielded just the one single, and I’m not sure the charts were unduly troubled by any of those releases, single or album. Solo careers notwithstanding, that seems to be about the last we heard of The Be Good Tanyas as a unit for many years, although intriguingly their website has been teasing “good things” to be on their way since an update in October 2023. So who knows…

As for Robson Street? Well, Threehundredsongs was far too young to be sampling its nightlife when we visited Vancouver in ’86, but I suspect it’s a great deal less fun these days compared to when Frazey was letting it all hang out there. Gone are the historic market and immigrant-run stores which imbued it with so much character, and there seems to be little sign of any seedy bars or nightclubs remaining. Still, if it’s Starbucks, sushi or super-expensive trinkets and ostentatious outfits you’re after, you’re welcome to it.


I’ve been ascribing a lot of the responsibility for the Robson Street-based nocturnal shenanigans to Frazey Ford, but the song is actually a cover, written by not-particularly-well-known-in-the-UK fellow Vancouver songwriter and musician—and presumably owner of the aforementioned accordion—Geoff Berner. I’ve added Geoff’s original of the song to the playlist, along with a version recorded in collaboration with Norwegian folk-rockers Real Ones.

From a songwriting perspective, it’s fascinating to hear how the mood of a song can be so dramatically changed by arrangement and instrumentation alone, despite a barely noticeable shift in tempo. In retrospect, the foot-to-the-floor urgency of the Tanyas’ interpretation might seem at odds with Geoff’s contemplative musings. But it isn’t.

Either way, three versions of the same song is probably quite enough for anyone, so I’ve added a little of what I can find on Spotify from the subsequent careers of the respective Tanyas, solo or otherwise. Frazey gives us three whole albums to discover, while Samantha Parton has just one solo song on Spotify, alongside an album in collaboration with former Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland. Trish Klein features on Frazey’s solo debut album Obadiah, and of course her work with the wonderful Po’Girl is unmissable.

Notes

[1] I assumed Oh! Susanna to be traditional. I mean, we all sung it as tiny kids at primary school, didn’t we. Yet its provenance is known and the writing credit goes to one Stephen Foster (1826–1864). It turns out that the song has an interesting—and not entirely untroublesome—history, and probably deserves an article of its own.

Artist: The Be Good Tanyas
Album: Blue Horse
Writer: Geoff Berner
Producer: Garth Futcher with The Be Good Tanyas
Released: Self-released, 2000; Remastered and reissued by Nettwerk Records, 2001

One thought on “35. Light Enough to Travel – The Be Good Tanyas

  1. Michael Tarrant

    Thanks for the reminder, another forgotten album that deserves a play.
    Agreed regarding this track being a ‘Single’ The charts were still diverse enough back then for this to have got airplay.
    I saw the band live on a few occassions in small venues, a great live act.

    Reply

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