The dog days of summer that currently have much of the nation sweltering induce, at best, lethargy and at worst, short tempers. Fortunately, there is no better cure in all the land than the one coming from our northerly neighbors in Newfoundland in the form of Great Big Sea. The sure-sure sea chanties, drinking songs and shoreline lullabies these lads routinely craft have transformed many an eye-rubbing dawn into a hopeful Ordinary Day and many more early evenings nights of dance and merriment. The boys return with more of the same on their 10th release, Safe Upon the Shore, out today.
The Newfoundlanders – at heart, a three-piece but usually accompanied by former Moxy Fruvous bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris MacFarlane – are at their prime when blending reworkings of traditional Celtic, Acadian and seafaring numbers with their own offerings advancing the practice of those styles. Their mid-90s collections such as 1995’s Up, 1997's Play and 1999’s Turn captured the group’s raucous, yet good-natured spirit – best displayed in their live performances. However, their more recent contributions, like 2004’s Something Beautiful or 2008’s Fortune's Favor focused more on an adult contemporary sound that stripped the uniqueness and excitement out of a distinct outfit. Only 2005’s compilation of traditionals, The Hard & The Easy, reclaimed that energy. There’s plenty of John Mayers and Nicklebacks peddling their non-threatening wares, and too few extolling the virtues of sail-makers and grog-drinkers. Fortunately, Safe Upon the Shore hews much closer to their former approach than the latter. And, as a precaution, I will give an extensive treatment here, in case you’re in need of an urgent Twitter fix or a Facebook update.
They don’t rush into their fast-break, between-the-blues rush right away, however. Instead, they ease back into their trademark sound with hearty harmonies, tin whistles and mid-tempo ballads. Co-lead vocalist Sean McCann leads off with “Long Life (Where Did You Go?),” revealing a slightly different vocal sound somewhere between Gaslight’s Brian Fallon and fellow Canadian Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies. It’s a decently-paced number, but I’m not sure about the electric guitar work supplied by frontman Alan Doyle here. It’s not particularly nimble – unlike so much of the group’s other instrumentalization, and masks a bit too much of McCann’s "Just Pretend"-style acoustic part. Fallon comes through in the verses as McCann phrases “opened the door, I turned on the light, I hope I’ll see you there,” while Robertson emerges as Sean leads the fantastic GBS chorus voices.
From there, more of the telltale GBS sounds return on its successor, the Doyle-sung “Nothing But a Song,” where the soaring tin whistle intro of uber-multi instrumentalist Bob Hallett instantly transports the listener to the shores of Labrador. It’s reminiscent of some of Doyle’s catchy originals from the Up/Play/Turn era like “Consequence Free” or “Sea of No Cares,” albeit a bit more relaxed. Moreover, the wordless, a cappella bridge hovers effortlessly without becoming demure. The lads can never remind us often enough how well they can sing.
It gets better on the third track, the ballad “Yankee Sailor.” In the style of Doyle’s earlier “Boston and St. John’s,” we’re again connected with the story of a young seaman and the trials of love while at sea. But in this narrative, the sailor is resigned to the likelihood that his maiden is transfixed with another, with whom he cannot compete and yet somehow can wish the best for her despite the toll it will take on him, as he knows she is making no error fixing upon his rival, and that realization is far harder to cope with than the consequence of a total lack of judgment. If that alone were not a compelling enough concept, Doyle couches that sense of inferiority – whether perceived or not – in distance between Americans and Canadiens, which the narrator is clearly positioned in the True North and envisioning his love as the sole reason for America’s beauty. Whether the plot reflects any of Doyle’s own perspective on Yankee-Canuck relations and culture is artfully buried in the movement of the story. But as someone who’s spent numerous nights gazing “across the water” (Lake Erie, in my case) towards New York and Pennsylvania from Ontario’s shores and saying “America is beautiful tonight,” Doyle is certainly on to something here and has composed something that connects with me extremely personally in the way perhaps only Aaron Perrino’s "Swan" or "Like A Criminal" have done.
Fortunately, McCann again takes the reins in “Good People,” an uplifting and soothing campfire tune, mixing of the Gordon Lightfoot/Jim Croce/CSN traditions with more warm harmonies at it’s core. It’s extremely close to the bluegrass compositions of the Barenaked Ladies – some of the best work that group ever offered – such as “For You,” but also not foreign to the musical ancestry of the Canadian Maritimes, as much of that foundation stemmed from Celtic influences, and that same background migrated to the hills of Appalachia to form mountain music, bluegrass and, ultimately, country.
Another vein of that tradition continued further south, merged with Creole in the swamps of the Delta to become the Cajun and Zydeco styles. Dolye explores some of this common ancestry in “Dear Home Town,” with its accordions, harmonicas and horns spanning the gap between Newfoundland and New Orleans. Meanwhile, Bob Hallett’s regimental “Over the Hills” speaks to the more limited Queen-and-Country British influence in eastern Canada.
The real treat of the album, though, Doyle’s mid-set barnburner, “Hit the Ground and Run.” Literally the account of a shotgun wedding, your foot will be tapping before the first chorus and you’ll be reaching for that high third harmony by the second go-round. More interesting than all the picking of banjos, fiddles and mandolins is the tune’s co-author, Doyle’s close friend – and fellow Robin Hood actor – Russell Crowe. Close since Crowe caught a GBS show in Australia several years back, and after Doyle produced the actor’s first professional recording, the two-time Academy Award winner has been known to hop on stage with the Newfie boys for a Johnny Cash cover or an Irish reel (the former of which a certain blog author might have witnessed in DC on March 15, 2008). Here, the collaboration produces the best tune on the record.
Its followed by its counterpoint, McCann’s entirely a cappella title track. The presence of bassist Foster here is vital – as his bass vocals ground the McCann’s lyrics that sound as if they could have been penned by hands on the first transatlantic vessels. The proceeding cover of The Kinks’ tongue-in-cheek ode to the iconic British potable, “Have a Cuppa Tea,” is an interesting idea, with is banjo and Celtic drums a new twist on Ray Davies’ snarky original. They continue the classic rock look-back later on in a pretty faithful replication of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole,” itself a reworking of a traditional medieval arrangement. And while McCann is obviously trying hard here, he doesn’t quite have Robert Plant’s pipes to pull it off. Still, the group always reaches high on its rock cover selections, and its version of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” off Play actually is closer to the spirit of Michael Stipe’s vision than the actual R.E.M. track itself, nearly quadrupling its pace to more accurately depict the rapid-fire world of college policy debate of the early 1980’s that Stipe experienced when he joined a fellow University of Georgia student at a debate tournament and found the entire experience absurd. The meaning of lines such as "a tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies" and "offer me solutions" [the debate plan], "offer me alternatives" [the counter plan] are unmistakable.
Closer to the end, Doyle’s “Road to Ruin” could easily be found amongst GBS fans’ favorites such as “Rant and Roar” and “The Old Black Rum” in the group’s encores as it tours Canada and the states this summer.
Come for: “Hit the Ground and Run”
Stay for: “Safe Upon the Shore”
You’ll be surprised by: “Yankee Sailor”
P.S. The cover art for Safe Upon the Shore is ridiculous. Check it out above.