Great Big Sea,
The Hard & the Easy
(Warner, 2005)

After a couple of disappointing albums, Great Big Sea is back to its roots and its glory with The Hard & the Easy.

Forgoing (at least for now) their excursion into video-friendly pop, the Newfoundland band has released an all-acoustic CD taken entirely from the province's rich music tradition. The result is extraordinary.

The album -- the band's ninth since 1992 -- begins with "Come & I Will Sing You (The 12 Apostles)," a counting song in the same tradition as "The 12 Days of Christmas" -- and every bit as repetitive. It's a solid, infectious track -- featuring the rare lead vocals of instrumentalist Bob Hallett -- but this more than anything else on the album will start to wear on your nerves after repeated plays.

The music picks up from there, first with the enthusiastic whaling song celebrating the "Old Polina." A lumberman sings of his one regret -- his lost love -- in the melancholy song, "The River Driver." "The Mermaid," sung with boisterous good cheer by Sean McCann, is a delightful, slightly bawdy look at love with a woman who's half fish. Equally fun is his take on the desperate husband in "Cod Liver Oil," while he gets gentle and loving on "Grace & Charming (Sweet Forget Me Not)" and adulterous in "Harbour Lecou."

Lead singer Alan Doyle proves himself again and again with songs ranging from the brash "Captain Kidd" to the romantic, slightly voyeuristic "French Shore." He provides not one, but two songs about a horse breaking through the ice, with the rowdy "Concerning Charlie Horse" and the poignant "Tickle Cove Pond."

Hallett takes the spotlight again on the "Tishialuk Girls" set, a lively instrumental track on which he can show off his many skills.

The heart of Great Big Sea is Alan Doyle on vocals, guitar, bouzuki, tenor banjo, mandolin and percussion, Sean McCann on vocals, guitar, bodhran and percussion, and Bob Hallett on vocals, accordion, bouzuki, mandolin, tenor banjo, fiddle, whistles and concertina. The band also features percussionist Kris MacFarlane and singer/bassist Murray Foster, who replaced founding member Darrell Power in the lineup. Guests Fergus O'Byrne, Frank Maher, Kalem Mahoney, Con O'Brien, Barry Canning and Tom Doyle add extra layers to the sound.

There is also a bonus DVD included with interviews and other musical treats. That said, I have to give a big thumbs-down to the packaging. While the cardboard sleeves are more eco-friendly than plastic jewelboxes, the discs fit so tightly into the sleeves that it was necessary to tear them to get them out.

The Hard & the Easy is a long-overdue return to the excitement that Great Big Sea engendered earlier in the band's career, and the CD easily ranks with their better albums: Up, Play and Turn. I look forward to their next recording with a great deal of anticipation.

by Tom Knapp
7 January 2006

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