Great Big Sea,
Something Beautiful
(Warner Music Canada, 2004)

Have Celtic folk-rockin' Newfoundlanders Great Big Sea abandoned their roots? No, not quite. But their latest release, Something Beautiful, is not quite as beautiful as I would have hoped.

On second thought, maybe it's too beautiful.

Great Big Sea's seventh album offers 13 tracks which are, for the most part, melodic, catchy, polished ... and decidedly mainstream. In other words, it's good. Great even. But it's not Great Big Sea.

Great Big Sea is Alan Doyle (vocals, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, banjo), Sean McCann (vocals, guitar, bodhran, strum stick, percussion) and Bob Hallett (vocals, mandola, bouzouki, banjo, fiddle, whistles, pipes, accordion, concertina). On this album, they are joined by Murray Foster on bass, Kris McFarlane on percussion and nine guest instrumentalists.

The first thing I noticed about this album (with great disappointment, I might add) is that it includes very few traditional numbers. Earlier Great Big Sea albums, such as Up (1995) and Turn (1999), exhibited a fairly even balance of originals and traditionals. Even Sea of No Cares (2002), which was beginning to hint at a more mainstream sound, included four traditional numbers. Something Beautiful has two. Yes, you heard me right. TWO.

The first of the two, "John Barbour," is a slow, oddly unsettling tune with a simple but effective syncopated accompaniment. Sung by McCann, this ballad tells the tale of a wealthy girl (the daughter of a sea captain) who falls in love with a "lowly sailor man." The musical arrangement is solid, and of course Hallett can always be counted on for some particularly competent whistle work. That said, I don't think "John Barbour" was a good choice for this album. Being the only traditional number with lyrics (gasp), this slow ballad would have been better replaced by a lively pub song or sea shanty.

"Chafe's Ceilidh," the other traditional number, is an arrangement of two toe-tapping Newfoundland dance tunes. The infectious "Heel and Toe Polka," featuring Hallett on accordion, McCann on bodhran and Doyle on guitar, is followed by the giddy single "Around the House." Beginning with an almost comical banjo solo, "Around the House" progresses to include almost every instrument imaginable and ends in triumphant brass.

When it comes to the originals on this album, it's obvious that Great Big Sea is focusing more on producing contemporary radio cuts than on staying true to its Newfie roots. All of the original numbers on Something Beautiful, with the exception of the traditional-sounding hockey anthem "Helmethead," are likely candidates for radio play. Of course, that doesn't mean they're bad. It just means that these songs, though competent and polished, have less traditional instrumentation, less energy and less charisma than I've come to expect from Great Big Sea.

Take, for example, "Shines Right Through Me" and "Something Beautiful." The first is a typical "I'm so happy and in love" song. An obvious made-for-radio cut, it has unremarkable lyrics and somewhat annoying synthesized sound effects. It's catchy (what GBS song isn't?) but painfully normal.

Similarly, the title track is a beautifully commercialized package, but just doesn't have that GBS flair. An emotional tune about getting over a broken heart, "Something Beautiful" has supposedly moved some fans to tears. (I nearly cried too, the first time I heard it, but for entirely different reasons. Could this be the same band that does "Donkey Riding"?)

Admittedly, not all of the original tracks on this album are as ordinary as "Shines Right Through Me" and "Something Beautiful." "When I Am King," written and sung with typical Doyle-ian optimism, is an example of a radio cut that retains some of that characteristic Great Big Sea energy. Similarly, the youthful and optimistic "Beat the Drum" and the warm, simple "Lucky Me" manage to merge radio-friendly production with traditional instrumentation. "Summer," a Doyle and McCann collaborative effort, is a relaxing number that just makes me want to hit the beach and soak up some rays.

The real disappointment is that this album contains no instant classics. "John Barbour" may be a solid traditional, but it's no "Mari Mac" (Up, 1995). Similarly, "Helmethead" may be a strong Hallett original, but it just can't quite match up to "French Perfume" (Sea of No Cares, 2002).

I could blame Great Big Sea's transition in style on the fact that their original line-up is no longer intact. (Bassist Darrell Power left the band early last year). However, more likely than not, their trend towards mainstream music arises from a desire to top the charts and increase radio play. Quite understandable. I just hope they don't take it too far. Then again, when I hear what was once a rowdy Newfie pub band singing about "La-La-La-La-La-Love," it's hard not to think that maybe they already have.

- Rambles
written by Katie De Jong
published 1 May 2004

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