Great Big Sea from the Great White North
There’s a television ad that has run in Canada touting the virtues of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador from its tourism authority that goes a little something like this: A shopkeeper turns over the Open sign in the window of his business to Closed, as evening falls on what appears to be the sleepy provincial capital of St. John’s. Suddenly, we’re transported to a brightly lit concert hall where the audience is bopping up and down to the rocking traditional pseudo-Celtic music being played. The band gracing the stage, it turns out, is known to many, many Canadians as Great Big Sea. Everybody’s happy, and the commercial entices us to come for a visit, because the province sure knows how to put on one heck of a party after people are done earning their wages—or, at least, set up a pretty decent rock show. It may be a stereotypical view of the province, but that’s what’s being sold to the rest of Canadians when it comes to the virtues of Newfoundland.
The commercial is actually an apt depiction of Great Big Sea, which has been around for 17 years and is now old enough to be considered a wizened veteran of the Canadian concert circuit. Great Big Sea is, at its heart, a party band, and there is pretty much one thing that its music is a soundtrack to in Canada: drinking your face off. They are a perennial favourite of frat boys—or at least they were when I was still in university, where their cover of Slade’s “Run Runaway” often wafted from dorm rooms—and I would imagine that Great Big Sea has provided background music for many a kegger across this fine land. You’ll hear their music sometimes played in pubs, particularly on and around St. Patrick’s Day, and Irish cover bands in Canada usually have a Great Big Sea song or two tucked into their set lists alongside more traditional music.
The band, however, has been gradually nudging away from its folksy rave-ups in recent years into something a little more mainstream-friendly and a little more pop-y. Safe Upon the Shore, which is the group’s ninth proper studio album, is actually a bit of a balance between the two poles, as the front half of the album tends to be loaded with treacly ballads and mildly rollicking straight-ahead lite-rock songs that wouldn’t be out of place on adult contemporary or even New Country radio. You know, stuff your Mom or Dad might like. The back half sounds more or less like the Great Big Sea of yore, with its tendency towards drinking anthems and folksy slow songs. In its reach to attract new fans and reel in the old, the album has done well for itself, coming in at No. 2 on the Canadian Albums Chart and charting in the lower half of the Billboard 200 in the US, which marks the first time that the band has cracked the latter. It can now be said, without a doubt, that Great Big Sea is Newfoundland’s biggest cultural export.
Safe Upon the Shore is an album of both collaboration and cover material. The collaboration part of the equation comes with “Dear Home Town”, which was co-written with Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Those expecting a raucous and riff heavy tune based on Bachman’s input will be disappointed, as the song has a latter-day country feel to the proceedings, complete with a brief appearance from a cosmopolitan horn section. However, considering that Bachman did write an ode to the place of his upbringing, “Prairie Town”, his input makes sense. Another hand that makes a notable contribution on a number of tracks is fellow Atlantic Canadian Joel Plaskett, who has had a respectable solo career in the Great White North and was a member of the definitely non-Great Big Sea-sounding ‘90s alternative rock band Thrush Hermit. Thus, his inclusion here is a bit of a head-scratcher.
The covers, on the other hand, turn away from Canadian hands and come from two classic British acts of yesteryear: the band reimagines “Have a Cuppa Tea” by the Kinks, which oddly plays like a countrified parody (even though the song originally appeared on the Kinks’ country album Muswell Hillbillies), and, believe it or not, Great Big Sea take a stab at “Gallows Pole”—yes, the Led Zeppelin staple. Though the latter is technically a traditional folk song, Great Big Sea takes on the Page/Plant arrangement in the second half of their version and does a fairly rote job of nailing it note-for-note right down to imitating Robert Plant’s careening vocals, which offers the question, what was the point? Oh, right. It’s an update of a classic rock song that you can guzzle a beer to.
There are a few surprises to shake up the formula a bit. “Over the Hills”, which is not to be confused with another Led Zeppelin song, is actually based on a traditional folk tune, though it contains references to Canuck soldiers going to fight the war in Afghanistan. The biggest shock, though, at least to Canadian fans, might be the inclusion of “Yankee Sailor”, which is as big of a love letter to America as they come. It is pure saccharine and the type of song you might expect to hear from a patriotic American performer wrapped in the US flag, with lyrics like “You say America is beautiful / And I sure hope you’re right / If I could see you across the water / I’d say America is beautiful tonight”. It might be enough to have Canadian fans, if not Newfoundlanders in particular, crying sell-out (or maybe just crying in their pint) for writing a tune that will mostly resonate with the market south of the 49th parallel.
There are other missteps as well. “Hit the Ground and Run”, which is the tale of a shotgun wedding done in bluegrass style, is about as hokey as songs on the new country dial come. It comes across as being little more than a novelty song, and while Great Big Sea might have thought it fun to include it, the tune really feels out of place on an album that is, at least in part, an affair rooted in the sternness of traditional folk. As well, the song “Good People”, which cosies up to the Eagles a little too snugly, offers the seemingly contradictory line: “The world today can be a scary place / Hard to keep your faith in the human race ... / But we’ll never run out of good people”.
For all that, there are strong moments to be found here. The biggest virtue of Safe Upon the Shore is that it is an album that boasts amazing vocal performances. There’s a moment on the album’s first single, “Nothing But a Song”, where the instrumentation just drops away and all you hear is what appears to be the core trio of Great Big Sea—Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett, and Séan McCann—ahh-ing and aww-ing in perfect union and harmony. It is an absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring performance, and I swear that, upon my first listen, it made time appear to stand still. Later on, the title track is strongly sung a cappella straight-up in a kind of Celtic style, along the lines of something Richard Thompson might write without his guitar, and, despite going on for about three and a half minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. In the era of Auto-Tune, it’s refreshing to hear a bunch of guys who actually have talent behind the microphone.
What might be the album’s true highlights come when the band drops the pretences of trying to be a commercially viable, radio-friendly outfit and return to their roots. Safe Upon the Shore’s strongest cut is the barroom stomper “Wandering Ways”, which is the tale of a hard-nosed former drinker who tries to persuade his wife that he no longer acts like a child, that he has foregone his ways and is now a (non-drinking) man. Similarly, “Road to Ruin” is a jaunty sing-along driven by an accordion and acoustic guitar, and would be the kind of tune that the Riverdance crew would tap along to.
The album is at turns inconsistent, at others a little bit predictable. I recall hearing “Nothing But a Song” while listening to the album for the first time and thinking, “OK, I bet a slow song is next up on the playlist just to calm things down.” Sure enough, the next track, “Yankee Sailor”, is a ballad. Maybe there’s a reason why the word “safe” is highlighted in red on the album’s cover art. Along with crooner Michael Bublé, Great Big Sea aims to have become, at least with this record, something of a Canadian middle of the road act—trying to appease the widest audience by being as bland as possible, at least in the front half of this record. Longtime fans might lament this gradual shift, but when Great Big Sea is on fire and isn’t writing sappy love songs to foreign lands or joke songs, one thing is for certain: they still know how to bring the party to the people of Newfoundland and elsewhere with their anthemic beer barrel tunes. All that can be said to that is, well, bottoms up.
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