Review : Great Big Sea - Safe Upon the Shore
PopmattersThere’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....full text
BlogcriticsSometimes I get clubbed on the side of the head when I least expect it. Though I'd heard of Great Big Sea when I reviewed Séan McCann's Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes a few months ago, I really didn't know much about this band from Newfoundland, Canada. I listened to Fortune's Favour and it was good, but didn't wow me. But when I heard Safe Upon the Shore it was definitely a wake-up call.
This is the 10th album from Great Big Sea, a band that's been together for 17 years. Safe Upon the Shore was recorded over the space of six months in New Orleans, St. John's in Newfoundland, and anywhere inspiration happened to strike - including buses and dressing rooms while on tour. Evidently a good portion of the album was recorded on band member (and one of the founders) Alan Doyle's laptop, which provided a mobile recording studio just about anywhere they happened to be.
Doyle, Bob Hallett, and McCann were the driving songwriters on the album, but it also included some co-writers you might not expect - like Russell Crowe and Canadian singer-songwriters Randy Bachman, Jeremy Fisher, and Joel Plaskett. With the New Orleans vibe and additional influx of influences, the group managed to push their usual sound to something I found to be truly inspired.
With a mix of styles, from folk and Bluegrass to rock I'd be happy to hear in any pub, this group of five musicians - Doyle, Hallett, McCann, Murray Foster and Kris MacFarlane - provides a full bodied sound that uses damn near everything that isn't nailed down... Guitars, bouzouki, mandolin, banjo, piano, accordion, concertina, whistle, harmonica, fiddle, pipes, bodhran, drums, keyboards, and lord knows what else. If it has strings or keys, I bet these folks can probably pick it up.
But on this album it was the mix of deeper, haunting tracks with those imbued by humor that really caught my attention. For me, albums are made or broken by the way they're constructed. The "landscape" of music that allows a comfortable mix from highs to lows and everything in between. Safe Upon the Shore provides a landscape as rich as the pictures of Newfoundland I've seen... from shores to hills, ice to sky....full text
BringonmixedreviewsIf you asked me what I would be reviewing on this very sunny Monday, I bet you wouldn’t believe me if I told you it was the latest effort from Canadian folk-rock band, Great Big Sea. From the name of the band, and the title of their recently released album “Safe Upon The Shore” I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that their music is essentially rock versions of old Newfoundland sea shanties — a thought that both interested but mostly scared me. I mean even the album art looks like a cheesy romance novel — with an open-shirted man and an oil painted ocean background.
In case you didn’t know, Great Big Sea is a platinum artist, with four albums reaching platinum within the last fifteen years. Surprising I know — of course that is on the Canadian Recording Industry Association (their version of the RIAA), making its numbers worthless. But it doesn’t mean their music isn’t enchanting. Acoustic jamborees with an accompaniment of several underused instruments, such as the fiddle, accordion, mandolin, concertina, etc, Great Big Sea takes their finely aged story telling and make some well versed folk tale songs. If it helps, picture if you mixed Dave Mathews Band with Canadian-born Celine Dion, to make some down-to-earth almost country tracks ala “Good People.”
“Safe Upon The Shore” also has songs that hit close to home, with tracks like “Dear Home Town” which both pulls on your heart strings, as well as relishes the idea of coming home. Although most of the band contributes to the groups vocals, Alan Doyle adds an authentic musky Irish tavern sing-along voice to the increasing drunk proceedings, which really gives life to these sea shanties. And if you enjoy a few blows of bagpipes, you will be doing a potato-loving jig for “Over The Hills.” When you get down to it, this album is as close as you can get to a modern band doing busy country folk music, this side of the current century. And even though I wouldn’t be the first person to listen to this type of music, I was really impressed by the authenticity and blind passion that GBS exerts with every fiddle and knee-slap....full text
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