In a province where the best kinds of parties were traditionally held in kitchens, caught up in a group of musicians, a new album made up largely of jigs and reels begs the question of why. How can you take snatches of melodies that have as many incarnations as there are kitchens along the island’s rocky coast, weave them together, and make them sound fresh and new?
The Dardanelles are a five-piece group from St. John’s who have been digging into songbooks and the vernacular since 2005, crafting a sound that approaches traditional Newfoundland music with the usual tools – acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, bodhran, fiddle, and the occasional shanty bellow – but with a renewed, youthful vigour and enthusiasm. Some of it might be from your grandfather’s record collection, but it sounds as contemporary and relevant as any other roots musicians making a raucous at all hours to a sweaty, sold-out crowd at the Ship in downtown St. John’s.
The Eastern Light, the Dardanelles’ most recent album, opens with “McCarthy’s” an instrumental fiddle number that gets the toes tapping and the dancers bobbing right from the get-go. Not unlike the salty water sweeping the shores of this island, the album moves in waves: instrumental pieces that begin slowly and subtly rise to a vivacious fervour, intermittently interrupted by narrative ballads with a touch of poetic sadness and a nostalgic yearning for seafaring days gone by.
Matthew Byrne has a delicate set of pipes, a smooth voice that glides in and out on the album – no bawdy drinking songs on The Eastern Light, but rather sweet, stirring melodies. The titular track takes the listener on a romantic voyage onboard a fishing vessel, “Pad’s Song” finds a tragic beauty in simplicity, while the upbeat closer “Big Bow Wow” – with the surprises addition of Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle on the chorus and a verse – has fun with plotting against a lazy captain.
Nothing on The Eastern Light sticks out as being a complete reinvention of Newfoundland folk music, but the songs do complement each other in such a way to make the traditional tunes fresh and interesting. As with any good live band, though, the album is not a piece of work to define the group – the Dardanelles’ new disc is merely the primer to get you ready for a night downtown, where you don’t just step back in history, you kick up your heels and dive in full force.