Review Summary: A glass in the hand and a gun in the other
Birthed from the seas and alcohol (or indeed, a sea of alcohol) were the Vancouver-based Dreadnoughts, specially armed with fiddle, mandolin, and accordion. Their take on Celtic punk, replete with sea shanties, polka, and other European folk traditions, embodied a singular, drunken fervour. (Whiskey and cider appear to be the most common means of conjuring it.) The band’s particular mixture of traditional dance and punk proved to be immediately intoxicating: just envision the routine of a folk dancer, with full colourful regalia, in fast-forward. A dizzying blur, a whirlwind of movement, yet each step still landing with unerring precision.
2017’s Foreign Skies
is the triumphant comeback of the Dreadnoughts, who released their last full-length LP back in 2010. Their reoccurring protagonist of the hard-drinking working man, who has wandered far and perhaps seen too much, finds himself in a more sombre environment: the battlefields of the First World War. Throughout earlier releases, he travelled from bar to sea to bar; the music mirrored his journey with bounding energy and rambunctious call-and-response chants. It’s a drunken escapism that is presented, a life of endless booze and alcohol-aided courtship. The interspersing of songs portraying labour on the seas reminds me that our protagonist does toil - and he very likely drinks to forget that fact.
imposes sobriety in both senses of the word - there’s no alcohol flowing in the trenches, and we must now contend with the horrors of war. But, as the band states, the album is specifically a tribute to those who lived through the First World War, and to those who didn’t make it; and at no point does grimness suffocate the celebration of life that pours through. Though the opener, “Up High”, is a solemn dirge that features mournful fiddle, the vocal melody fittingly soars to the line of “and raise your voice up high”; it falls gently, stays resilient with the chant of “we remember.” The minor-key jig in “Daughters of the Sun” possesses steely-eyed determination, “Back Home in Bristol” shows us the unyielding spirit of a man doomed to die.
Rather than tone down their dance-inducing madness to match newfound solemnity, the Dreadnoughts have become more eclectic; for instance, on the title track, a cascade of drums leads into a polka section, which takes a surprising turn into a ballad-like piano passage that then transforms back into a rapid-fire refrain. Punk energy is harnessed to represent fighting spirit; “Black and White”, dealing with the bloody Battle of the Somme, mounts a spirited defence in the form of a swinging march. “Gavrilo” is particularly gorgeous in its contrast between frenzied, syncopated dance and a poignant acoustic section. The production, with a slightly heavier-sounding lower end, adds a touch of darkness to the propulsive riffing.
Most central to Foreign Skies
, and maybe even to the Dreadnoughts’ identity as a whole, is authenticity. Great care was taken in constructing characters, narratives, that felt fleshed out; many songs had a complete, self-contained story, even if it was for something as specific as a hunt for poutine in Quebec. It always seemed to me that in pursuing ecstasy, our protagonists were also running away from something. This underlying knowledge influences my perception of any no-holds-barred franticness in the music; it’s as if I’m peering into the mental state of someone who doesn’t just want, but needs, to lose himself. It makes the experience a bit more sobering than it might have been otherwise. What the historical settings evoke is a sense of abandonment in bygone worlds - musically, there are songs that seem like they could have been pulled straight out of an old folk repertoire, even though they were written in our current age; lyrically, there’s something fantastical about a man who braves the high seas and then drunkenly flirts with barmaids in his spare time. I think of it as colourizing an old black-and-white photo, and then jumping into it. Foreign Skies
paints with vibrant strokes the lives of soldiers in war, but more importantly, it invites empathy in the way it lays out its first-person narrations. It doesn’t beg for us to commemorate, doesn’t glorify battle; it’s left up to us to decide how we feel about Jim Wilson and his overpowering desire to go home, or about Jean LaGasse who wants to avenge his fallen ship. They speak to us and we listen.
On Foreign Skies
, the Dreadnoughts remind us that they are very much alive, and so are the spirits of old. They’ve always blurred the lines between then and now, but their music is as immediate as it ever was. The album lends itself to both serious contemplation and reckless dancing, and I think it’s a minor miracle that these two elements can be combined so well. Cheers to the past, the present, and the future.