Great Big Sea,
(Warner Music Canada, 1995)

I'm not sure what I expected the first time I heard Great Big Sea, but a lively cover of legendary '80s heavy metal band Slade wasn't it. (I've never been a heavy metal fan, but I rather liked Slade's MTV hit "Run Runaway" ... perhaps it was the bagpipe band in the video that won me over.) So I'm driving in my car, listening to a jiggy rendition of a heavy metal hit by a band I thought was supposed to be Celtic-Canadian traditional ... and I start to smile.

Great Big Sea surprised me from the very beginning, and the pleasant feeling the band gave me hasn't worn off yet. Whatever the band touches -- and its members seem to have very eclectic tastes in music -- turns to gold.

The band is Alan Doyle, Sean McCann, Bob Hallett and Darrell Power. The release of their second album, Up, shows the foursome with a new level of polish and professionalism. The sound is tighter than before, the harmonies even better.

Besides the pop cover "Run Runaway," the album includes traditional songs "Lukey" (recently re-recorded with the Chieftains on their album Fire in the Kitchen), "Billy Peddle," "The Jolly Butcher" and "Rant & Roar" (not the better known "English sailors" version, but a Newfoundland-specific variation), plus a raucous "Mari-Mac" and the lively instrumental set "Dancing with Mrs. White." To each, Great Big Sea brings a hearty dose of fun, frolic, and a personal touch that makes each tune their own.

Band members were busy writing for this album, too, with standout originals including "Goin' Up," Doyle's tribute to the Newfoundland kitchen party, and the singer's heartfelt "Fast As I Can." McCann's "Nothing Out of Nothing" gives voice to the hopelessness of someone growing up in a depressed economy, a desperate mood he counters with his optimistic ballad "Something to It."

One of the finest tracks on the album is Hallett's take on an Irish pub song, "The Old Black Rum." It's a wildly fun drinking song with one of the oddest chorus lyrics ("The old black rum's got a hold on me like a dog wrapped 'round my leg") I've ever heard. It's followed by a marvelous blue-collar anthem, "The Chemical Worker's Song (Process Man)," which has an incredible percussion line adding punctuation to the wrenching words.

Although many of these tracks later reappeared on the American compilation Rant & Roar, I think you'll be pleased if you track down the original Canadian release so you don't miss a single tune.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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