If you can play a few chords and know the words to “The Islander” (“I’m a Newfoundlander, born and bred, and I’ll be one ’til I die . . .”) then you can get a gig in St. John’s. You might even be good enough to keep at it for a while, but if you’re in it for the long haul, you need something else.
The folk trio that is the Once – Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill, and Andrew Dale – have that extra something and are poised to take up the reigns of successful folk acts from this province with their sophomore album, Row Upon Row of the People They Know.
Two years ago, their self-titled debut was a landmark release, because of the way it did so much with so little and showed a side of folk music that veered away from the trite and the stereotypical. It’s traditional music, and it has a traditional feel, but it’s still brand new. Row Upon Row draws on many of the same influences – the pop-roots blend of Great Big Sea, melded with the intimacy of Ron Hynes – but this album ultimately feels fresher, bigger, more fun, more original, and more important.
The three emerged as a theatre act, and as such they understand how to entertain. When that sensibility meets musical prowess, the result is awe inspiring. Hollett fronts the band, as capable of making you quiver with a ballad as she is of shaming a sailor when she belts out a shanty. Meanwhile, the guys form the musical backbone, and everyone seems inherently aware of when to go big and when to hold back. There’s a sense of self-awareness, and at no point is it about ego or about one member showing off – the songs remain the most important thing, to the point where they almost exist as a separate entity altogether and carry you away.
In a true display of less being more, the Once cover Wince Coles’s tune, “By the Glow of the Kerosene Light,” with bare accordion accompaniment. It’s got something of the a cappella strength of “Marguerite” from the group’s last release, except that the interwoven harmonies and sudden spikes convey a much more genuine understanding and emotion, an emotion that leaves a lump in your throat.
Listen to the ending – “And she looked so peaceful, as she went to her rest, by the glow of the kerosene light,” – and note the slight catch in Hollett’s voice. The song has such a hold on you that it’s completely natural, and even though you feel the pain of human life, you also see through it to the sublime beauty – even if you were born after electricity. That’s precisely what a good story is supposed to do, which is what this album really is: stories, right from the opening number “Cradle Hill” to the emotional juggernaut closer, “Song for Memory.”
It’s on the closing track that everything comes together: it opens with a simple string lick before Hollett takes over, leading you by the hand to look on a group of old men, sitting around reflecting on life, the battlefield, and regrets. Midway through, it swells, with choral voices of local musicians and bells, reaching a level of sophistication and epic grandeur, looking back on what’s happened without abandoning the here and now. The album, like the lives of these men, has seen melancholic moments, but it finishes on a high note.
“You keep turning around again” – so ends “A Round Again,” and it’s a big celebration, but the Once have consistently shied away from just turning around again. Instead, they’ve taken the best of the musical strains of Newfoundland and Labrador and turned them into a show that inarguably moves forward. It’s tough to say where the Once will be in ten years time, but with this album it’s clear that they won’t be on George Street, playing “The Islander” for a bar tab.