Great Big Sea,
Sea of No Cares
(Zoe/Rounder, 2002)

I was browsing the Great Big Sea chatroom, curious to see if the diehard fans had experienced a similar reaction to my own. Opinions were mixed, as one would expect, but one seemed to summarize my feelings nicely: "This would be good, if I wasn't expecting Great Big Sea."

The new GBS CD, Sea of No Cares, is a big shift from the Newfoundland band's earlier sound. It's not just the addition of a drummer to the touring lineup that signals the change; the band, overall, has opted for something closer to a mainstream, rock-oriented sound than exhibited on past albums.

A good friend of mine, likewise a diehard GBS fanatic, listened to this CD and asked, "Where's their energy?" The first time I played the disc for my girlfriend, she said, with audible disbelief, "But -- they sound ordinary."

That may be a bit harsh, but Great Big Sea has definitely lost some of its characteristic flavor. If I hadn't seen the cover myself -- and if the band's vocalists weren't so very distinctive -- I might have believed that some of these tracks were recorded by a GBS-wannabe band.

The album begins with the title track, and the drum kit and electric guitar that launch it had me checking quickly to see if I'd slipped the wrong disc into the player. "Penelope" is a peppy but unremarkable song about a Jamaican immigrant who wants to go home. "Clearest Indication" is a gentle, romantic song, a band original I'm sure will become a concert standard and a favorite among fans. But it isn't 'til the fourth track, the traditional "Scolding Wife," that the band of old rears its head. Traditional instrumentation and a rollicking bodhran rhythm set the stage for the boisterous song of marriage gone bad.

Yes, there's plenty on this album that plays on the band's particular strengths, from the cheerful self-deprecation of "Stumbling In" to the fisherman's yearning of "A Boat Like Gideon Brown" and the sorrowful "Widow in the Window." The ghost ship in "French Perfume" has a frantic rhythm and is bound to become a classic, and the traditional "Yarmouth Town" is a fun, bawdy romp. Liz Pickard provides additional vocals on the bittersweet "Barque in the Harbour." "Own True Way" is a ballad of personal inspiration. The album closes with a nice instrumental/vocal medley dubbed "Fortune."

Great Big Sea is Alan Doyle (vocals, guitar, bouzouki), Sean McCann (vocals, guitar, bodhran, shakers), Bob Hallett (vocals, fiddle, tenor banjo, accordion, bouzouki, mandolin, high and low whistles) and Darrell Power (vocals, bass, bones, mandola). Ten guest musicians join them on various tracks, providing a wide range of extra sounds.

I don't wish to leave anyone with the impression that Sea of No Cares is a bad album. The performances are solid, the vocals (primarily by Doyle and McCann) are as strong as always and the song selection is pretty good. There are some great tracks here, and if I'd never heard these guys before, I'd be raving about them right now.

But I have heard them before, and this CD pales in comparison with Great Big Sea's earlier, more exceptional work. The CD has less edge, less enthusiasm, less giddy damn-this-is-fun excitement about it, and the band seems to be trying to distance itself somewhat from its traditional roots. Unfortunately, that pushes them a step closer to ordinary -- a direction I hope they choose not to follow much further.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 23 March 2002

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