Music

Great Big Sea: Safe Upon the Shore

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.


Great Big Sea

Safe Upon the Shore

Label: Great Big Sea
US Release Date: 2010-07-13
UK Release Date: 2010-08-02
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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.

5

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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