I’ve listened to At Ships End’s debut LP Awake a few times now, and the deeper I get, the more unsettled I become. ‘Disconcerting’ may come closest to describing the mood.
The band, who gained some local notoriety a few years ago when they went around St. John’s collecting bottles of Quidi Vidi Beer for their “Have You Ever” music video, looks like a folk band, gauging by their Awake liner notes anyhow. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and tin whistle are all in their musical arsenal. But the inside jacket also depicts a sullen cast of characters–Adam Hunt, Nick King, Julia Bowdring, Nick Collins, Colin Coombes, and Tim White–bracing you for a collection of songs at least partially influenced by The Pogues and Dropkick Murphys.
Awake opens with sombre number that becomes an all-out rowdy bawl. Featuring guest vocalist Matthew Hornell, “Jack of All Trades” is about an honest, amiable blind man who frequently gets robbed and ends up walking off a cliff, never to be heard from again. And that’s one of the lighter numbers.
At Ships End have the angst, energy and volume for a solid Celtic punk record, but there’s still room to refine that hardcore sound. The musicianship throughout is good and cacophonic, and singer Adam Hunt sounds angry at times (occasionally outright pissed), but the songs sometimes more closely resemble the rants you hear waiting for the Metrobus than introspective lyrics. I’m not asking for the kind of ivory tower poetry that might ostracize fans, but some creative phrasing or cadences would lend the songs some irony, flavour and layers of humility that make an altogether more convincing record.
The lyrics, “She sits by herself, with no one to hold / As her blackened heart starts to unwind / The cold-hearted bitch is forever alone / Until the day that she dies,” read like an unfiltered tantrum that leaves something to be desired. When they hold back, as in the standout track “To the Wind and the Sea,” At Ships End come closer to finding their stride. The challenge now is to find a happy medium, so they can let loose and still keep the lyrical core intact.
By the time you get to closing track “Drinking my Life Away” it’s hard not to be exhausted. The tune has something of a “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced” vibe, but with the same stiff upper lip as the rest of the album. Even when At Ships End are playing their guts out – like on “Beggars to Butchers” or the instrumental “Castle Kelly” – there aren’t those little smirks to reassure you. Maybe it’s intentional: a misery-loves-company album to crank loudly when sociable beers aren’t enough, you need a bottle of something strong and whatever outlet you can find in the rowdy underbelly of St. John’s. If that’s the case, drink up At Ships End, and even if it leaves you with a sore head in the morning, it comes on the heels of a painfully cathartic night.