Sometimes I get clubbed on the side of the head when I least expect it. Though I'd heard of Great Big Sea when I reviewed Séan McCann's Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes a few months ago, I really didn't know much about this band from Newfoundland, Canada. I listened to Fortune's Favour and it was good, but didn't wow me. But when I heard Safe Upon the Shore it was definitely a wake-up call.
This is the 10th album from Great Big Sea, a band that's been together for 17 years. Safe Upon the Shore was recorded over the space of six months in New Orleans, St. John's in Newfoundland, and anywhere inspiration happened to strike - including buses and dressing rooms while on tour. Evidently a good portion of the album was recorded on band member (and one of the founders) Alan Doyle's laptop, which provided a mobile recording studio just about anywhere they happened to be.
Doyle, Bob Hallett, and McCann were the driving songwriters on the album, but it also included some co-writers you might not expect - like Russell Crowe and Canadian singer-songwriters Randy Bachman, Jeremy Fisher, and Joel Plaskett. With the New Orleans vibe and additional influx of influences, the group managed to push their usual sound to something I found to be truly inspired.
With a mix of styles, from folk and Bluegrass to rock I'd be happy to hear in any pub, this group of five musicians - Doyle, Hallett, McCann, Murray Foster and Kris MacFarlane - provides a full bodied sound that uses damn near everything that isn't nailed down... Guitars, bouzouki, mandolin, banjo, piano, accordion, concertina, whistle, harmonica, fiddle, pipes, bodhran, drums, keyboards, and lord knows what else. If it has strings or keys, I bet these folks can probably pick it up.
But on this album it was the mix of deeper, haunting tracks with those imbued by humor that really caught my attention. For me, albums are made or broken by the way they're constructed. The "landscape" of music that allows a comfortable mix from highs to lows and everything in between. Safe Upon the Shore provides a landscape as rich as the pictures of Newfoundland I've seen... from shores to hills, ice to sky.