Something has happened to The Once, and I mean in a very good way, since I first heard them around their debut release of 2009. Suddenly they are a big band, in all senses of the word. OK. True enough, they are actually the same three piece line up of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, but the new album is fleshed out by a substantial cast of players and has a big, big sound. They also have a small, but important clutch of awards to their name, with growing exposure across the Atlantic, especially in their native Canada. Now having signed with Nettwerk Records, the band have just embarked on a marathon World Tour with none other than Passenger, another of our previous featured picks, that will see them play in front of countless thousands of people. The tour has just hit the UK and Europe before heading off to Asia. But it’s the excellent Departures that is the focus here, a delightful record, conceived on a grand scale and executed with panache, it’s also something of an artistic leap that should pay off handsomely in the current circumstances.
The Once take their name from an old Newfoundland expression that means right away or imminently, but there has been nothing immediate about a band who it seems, coalesced rather gradually. Their origins aren’t exactly clear cut, but they were a gigging band around their native Newfoundland when in 2009, someone who had just heard them play made the magnanimous offer of $5,000 to help them make their debut album. That album was then picked up by the Borealis label and released in August of that year, which marks the point from which the band became the sole focus of the trio.
Looking back on that album, apart from the fresh faces and clean shaven profile of the two men of the band, its appeal at the time for me is obvious. The mix of songs pulled from the folk tradition, mixed with others penned by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Dave Cousins of Strawbs, mixed with the considerable multi-instrumental of both Phil and Andrew, was just really well done. The record has a lovely sound to it, with Geraldine’s voice in particular, but their three part harmony as well, pushing it ahead by a length in the ear-worm derby.
Our folk music scene across the wider British Isles can be so absorbing, with so many facets that it can be easy to forget the same is true across the Atlantic. True enough they may well favour their Celtic connections, especially in Canada where there is a current, vibrant band and festival scene – although where would we all be without Francis J Child – but Willie Taylor, The Maid On The Shore and Three Fishers are suitably nautical to work either side of the pond and the treatments given on The Once’s eponymous debut album are as surprising and original as any you’ll find
But to return to matters in hand and Departures. What has changed? On the band’s website, Phil Churchill offers an astute summation of many a band’s career path and aspirations, charting the evolution of The Once through their three main albums, “The first one was for friends and family, the second for fans and now the new one is for new people.” Well you can add to that the new one is for old people too, as I can’t imagine many of their growing fan base cocking-a-snook on hearing this. It’s unquestionably a very different sounding record, with horns and big orchestration and all of bar two of the tracks feature additional musicians. But there’s something else going on, as this time round there are seven, original compositions, plus one song co-written by the band and Jody Richardson, who it transpires is an actor, musician and stalwart of the Newfoundland scene.
But for the first bar or two, the first minute and couple of seconds of the opening The Town Where You Lived, everything is perhaps as you would expect. Geraldine sounds as pure toned and gorgeous as ever, the acoustic instruments starts to mesh beneath her, with perhaps the only anomaly being a pronounced kick drum. Then the three part harmonies kick and so do the horns. The first time I played the disc, having done so without consulting the sleeve, I had a double take. I guess subconsciously I’d skipped their part in the intro, where they add a subtle emphasis, so when the swell of brass took the lift, I had to dive for the CD case. It’s a great song too and a moving and loving tribute to Phil Churchill’s father, part celebration and part unburdening of the grief that has remained bottled up for a dozen years since his death.
Mortality is a factor in We Are All Running, with the bands trademark harmonies doubled and redoubled and the mandolin providing the musical highlight, dancing its way through the song. It’s a surprise then when the breakdown introduces a coda and a string section does what the horn section did, but this time adding a tightly structured finale to the piece.
It’s the band’s voices that once more provide the highlight for You Lead I Follow, a song written this time by Dale for his fiancé, a doting affirmation of love. It features the drums of Brad Kirkpatrick as does the following Fool For You, which you could say paints the other side of loves coin as Geraldine sings, “When we first met I measured you up to the sky, so you made promises you knew you’d turn into lies.” She treads the fine line between heartache and indignation and there’s a clever half tone step up to give the final lift, before the massed layers of harmony are deployed once more. It’s stirring stuff.
There’s an awful lot wrapped up in All The Hours, which seems to be about life on the road, but when Geraldine sings, “Whispering words of woo and woe, don’t see the cornfield for the crows,” there’s an extra frisson. It’s cleverly arranged with the string section once again there to fill out the emotional range of the song and the fantastic harmonies of the trio circling as if lost on the highway.
It should perhaps be emphasised that the acoustic instrumentation is superb throughout, the guitars, mandolin and banjo from Phil and Andrew create a constantly shifting template for the songs to grow and blossom, but as sax and flugelhorn are reintroduced on Into Your Life – another heartbreaker – it’s the extra level of arrangements that have made the difference to this record and demonstrate that progression so pithily observed above. But then all of the songs so far are band originals and that’s equally significant in setting this album apart from the two that have come before.
The first non-original is also a surprise, however, as rather than digging into the tradition as they have done so successfully before, the song is Can’t Help Falling In Love, a song that sold a million copies in America alone, when Elvis released his version. It also topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic 32 years later, this time for UB40, so no pressure then! They certainly put a unique stamp on it, which is all you can really ask, but it starts in ethereal mode, with a sudden gear shift that puts some swing into the mix. It’s a fabulous arrangement, giddy and high as a kite, a little bit like falling in love.
Standing At Your Door maintains the mood, coming on like something straight out of David Lynch and slowly morphing into a somewhat woozy torch song, before falling apart into blips and scrapes. And we’re not done yet, as The Nameless Murderess – surely worth the price of admission on title alone – adds another welcome left turn steering us into the middle of Jacques Brel and Tom Waits territory. It’s brilliant – utterly bonkers – but brilliant, massed choir and brass a-go-go, seek and find at all costs.
If this were a record, then I guess side two would be the experimental side and just to round things off as thoroughly as they can be Sonny’s Dream is taken a cappella, although with parts multi-tracked to build up a wonderful climax that proved the final, slack-jawed surprise.
Departures wasn’t the record I expected and more power to the collective elbow of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale for delivering a record of startling originality, which by the same token retains the core of what got me listening to The Once in the first place, that being their sublime vocal and instrumental skills and gift for song. In three albums they’ve made amazing progress and who knows what the latest chapter of events will do for them, but there are already suggestions appearing that they are making waves amongst their new found audience. We can only hope to stick along for the ride, so I’ll be in the Departures lounge, bags packed, headphones on with The Once as my soundtrack. All The Hours… Oh, All The Hours.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Nettwerk Records
UK & Ireland Tour Dates
12 – BOURNEMOUTH, O2 Academy
13 – PLYMOUTH, Pavilions
15 – BRISTOL, O2 Academy
16 – CARDIFF, Great Hall
18 – BIRMINGHAM, O2 Academy
19 – MANCHESTER, O2 Apollo
22 – DUBLIN, The O2 Arena
23 – BELFAST, Waterfront Hall
25 – GLASGOW, O2 Academy
26 – EDINBURGH, Usher Hall
27 – NEWCASTLE, O2 Academy
29 – LEEDS, O2 Academy
30 – NOTTINGHAM, Rock City
03 – NORWICH, University of East Anglia
04 – CAMBRIDGE, Cambridge Corn Exchange
07 – LONDON, Hammersmith Apollo
08 – LONDON, Hammersmith Apollo
Full Tour Dates: www.theonce.ca/tour/