Safe Upon The Shore is the tenth studio release from from Great Big Sea, the St. John's-based, Juno-nominated band that fuses Newfoundland traditional music with modern pop in a crowd-pleasing formula both heartfelt and vital. A pure force of nature - much like the ocean surge they take their name from - Great Big Sea's blend of instruments like mandolin, bodhran, fiddle, and concertina, along with their vocal harmonies, revels in the melodies they create and the Newfoundland tunes they love. Their sound bellows joy.
Their fans have been responding since their self-titled debut in 1993. All of their albums have gone gold, and most are multi-platinum. After almost thirteen years together, this highly original and award-winning band is releasing a new kind of album.
The Hard and The Easy is the follow-up to Something Beautiful (2004). The band's usual pattern was to record an album that's half original tracks, and half their beloved folk music. However, they had so many original pieces ready for Something Beautiful they decided to save much of the traditional material for a second release, one that spans the spectrum of the Newfoundland songbook. This solid and straightforward acoustic album of traditional and local songs is a first for singers and multi-instrumentalists Sean McCann, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett, but it's also a logical progression. Newfoundland music and Newfoundland culture are both their genesis, and their raison d'etre.
"We always wanted to do this kind of album," said Alan. "The fans ask for it, certainly, but it is more about the quality of the songs. This music is what made us most special, most unique."
This is the music they grew up with, the music they learned as children. Their appetite for it is genuine. "There were a thousand amazing songs in our backyards," said Alan. "The biggest reason to do an album like this is because you can. If you are a Newfoundland musician, they're available and accessible. Most folk musicians would love to have a body of work like this to draw on."
"We're proud of these songs and very much love the place they come from."
Indeed, the play list could be described as their own personal Top Ten. "This could have been titled Sean, Bob and Alan's Party Favourites," said Sean. Catch them at home with friends and a guitar, and this is what they'll be singing. Maybe "Cod Liver Oil", or "Harbour LeCou", both classics from the Gerald S. Doyle songbooks, a local series they are more than passingly familiar with.
Tracing the evolution of Newfoundland folk music is a passion for Great Big Sea. Each of these twelve songs was selected for what it says, how it speaks of Newfoundland music, history, labour and love, and how it fits into that musical canon.
"Several of those songs - "Graceful & Charming", "Tickle Cove Pond" - are from the turn of the last century, and besides the beautiful melodies, the poetry itself is really remarkable," said Bob. "They're like something from Shelley or Wordsworth. You don't see that kind of imagery now, where lyrics are more often just about getting something to rhyme."
Then there's the enigmatic lyrics of "Come and I Will Sing You", which have a tantalizing history, lost somewhere in the mists of time; or the band's homage to the forgotten career of Omar Blondahl ("Concerning Charlie Horse") who hailed from Iceland, listened to Pete Seeger and caused a revolution in Newfoundland folk singing. There is no doubt about the merits of the Peacock Collection's sad woodsman's lament, "River Driver", which the band performs acapella. And they have returned to their roots as an acoustic quartet to perform the more common "Old Polina", in a way that refines and amplifies, not just recreates, the impact of previous recordings - and they do it without the benefit of electric instruments. The majestic "Tickle Cove Pond" describes an incident where a driver, in a careless rush, tries to force his horse-drawn cart across unstable ice. The horse, Kit, falls through. "Tickle Cove Pond" has been known to make grown men burst into tears. But Great Big Sea firmly believes that Kit survives, and their version of the song is a celebration, not a dirge. Like all the tracks here, it's a significant song to them. The album's title even comes from the lyrics, which are equal parts melancholy, heroic, and sweet, like all the Newfoundland music Great Big Sea loves so much.
"The hard and the easy, we take as they come - that's it. That encapsulates the Newfoundland spirit," said Alan.