Sons of Maxwell,
Sailors Story
(self-produced, 2000)

OK, so cutting a compact disc into the shape of a sailing ship is a novelty. It caught my eye. Perhaps it was even the deciding factor when I chose Sailors Story over the various other Maritimes recordings on the shelf.

Bad idea. Bad! Not only will the oddly shaped disc not play in my car stereo (I missed the fine print warning me of that before giving it a try, with unfavorable results), but it beats the hell out of my home stereo changer every time it rotates into place. But after several seconds of nerve-wracking shudderings and loud clacking noises, the ship slips into place and Sons of Maxwell start to sing.

OK, now that's better.

Sons of Maxwell consists of brothers Dave and Don Carroll, who provide vocals, guitars and bodhran on this sea-themed recording. Joining them are Reece Nearing on bass, Julian Marentette on drums, and Mike Leggat on accordion and synthesizer. That's about as much as the liner notes tell you, so don't expect to learn much about the traditional songs on the album. But, no worries, their voices are clear, the lyrics are easily understandable and the songs are fairly straightforward, from the opening "Farewell to Nova Scotia" to the concluding "The Leaving of Liverpool." Along the way, the Carrolls provide a nice sampling of material.

"Mary Mac" is a grand tongue-twister of a song (although this version loses some of the twist by substituting Mary Mac's father for the usual mother in the chorus), and the boys bring it to a nice clip by the end. Next is "Sonny's Dream," a Ron Hynes song about a mother's attempt to keep her son home on the farm instead of following his father to sea. "Peter Street," another traditional, tells a sailor's tale of woe when his landside tryst ends in disaster.

A clever surprise on this album is none other than the Beatles' popular shanty, "Yellow Submarine." The Carrolls do a creative job with the song, substituting a vigorous "ra-da-da-dum" vocal chorus where Lennon and McCartney demanded a brass band. OK, it's not traditional, but it's fun -- and it adds a nice spark to the album. Tom Lewis' "Last Shanty" is another hoppin' song about the changing face of seamanship.

Popular traditionals "Irish Rover" and "The Mermaid" get lively treatment here; "The Mermaid" in particular keeps your toes tapping throughout. But Stan Rogers' pirate song, "Barrett's Privateers," comes across clipped and dry, as if the Carrolls really didn't want to sing it again. Even fine a cappella harmonies can't save this one.

(For those of a mortal bent, it's worth noting that the last three songs involve three full ships' crews -- and by the end, all but two sailors are dead. Tells ya something about the mental state of seamen, eh? And these are fun songs!)

These are all songs I've heard done before, and sometimes done better. But Sons of Maxwell can boast excellent vocals and, in most cases, fine traditional arrangements. Folks with a yen for the sea should enjoy a few spins of this disc -- provided you can get it to work in your stereo.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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