Brown Ale,
Heads Up!
(self-produced, 2000)

Heads Up! is an independent release by Brown Ale, and although it contains a good variety of familiar songs and tunes, as well as some original work, it doesn't exactly make me want to rush to their next performance or buy up copies of the album for all of my friends. Some of the elements associated with enjoyable music -- rhythm, instrumentals, vocals, arrangements -- are there, but not always at the same time, and there are a number of times when I hear something that just makes me cringe ... and that is not something that I would associate with good listening!

Brown Ale is Glenn McFarlane, a New Brunswick native who plays guitars, mandolin, bouzouki, harmonica and synthesizer, and Les Smith, originally from Newfoundland, who provides bass, tin whistles, Irish flute, bones, cello and concertina. The pair, who share the vocals on the album, are now based in Ontario, Canada, and frequently perform on the pub and festival circuit. Brown Ale is joined by guests John Burton (bodhran) and Jon Grant (synthesizer, djembe, doumbek).

I like the material included on the album -- there are a great variety of songs and tunes with Irish and Canadian origins, as well as some original work by the band -- and the CD is a good length (19 tracks). For the most part, I like the instrumentals -- with a few exceptions that, rest assured, I will get to. I even like the vocals -- although again, there are some major exceptions. However, I'm afraid that this is where my praise for the album runs out. Although these features would seem to lead to a likeable piece of work, they just don't.

Why? I think the problem lies in the actual joining together of all the different parts of the music. The whole is supposed to be greater than the sum of its parts, yes? But in this case, there seems to be something left out. A vibrancy or energy perhaps? I can't quite put my finger on it, but the fact remains that I have heard many of the songs on the album done before, but better. I think some examples are called for here, to give the reader a better understanding of why this album just doesn't work.

OK. The tin whistle is one thing. Now, I should say first that ordinarily, I do like the tin whistle, so I don't think that this criticism is a matter of taste. In a number of tracks on the album ("Banks of Newfoundland/Up the Hills of Down," "The Gypsy," "I'll Tell Me Ma," "MacPherson's Lament"), I find the whistle to be ... well, irritating. It seems overly shrill, and the style of playing just doesn't seem to fit in with the other instruments. Too much unnecessary slurring and embellishment. When I think of traditional Irish/Celtic music -- which is what Brown Ale is playing -- I think of energy, life, hopping up and down, accents ... that kind of thing. Especially in up-tempo pieces. But Smith's whistling just doesn't give me that feeling. In contrast his flute playing, for the most part, is much more expressive and enjoyable.

The second major difficulty I have are the vocals. More specifically, McFarlane's vocals. At least, I'm pretty sure that it is McFarlane -- it doesn't say for certain in the liner notes who provides the vocals where -- but who it is isn't as important as what he was doing with his voice! And the problem is, I'm not really sure what he is doing with his voice -- or why -- but it certainly isn't pleasant! It kind of sounds like your stereotypical California surfer-dude (in the midst of holding back a torrent of tears) trying to sing Celtic music. There's too much quivering and wavering about -- attempts at vibrato, perhaps? If so, the attempt has, unfortunately failed. His voice isn't bad when it's au naturel, but as soon as all of this fooling around with it starts, it distracts the listener from all of the merits of the song. For examples, I would suggest (but not recommend) listening to "The Ferryland Sealer," "A McFarlane's Lament" and "Follow Me Up to Carlow." On the upside, I did really like the instrumentals in all three of these tunes.

I think it would be safe to say that if Smith and McFarlane stuck to their strengths, the final product of Brown Ale would be much improved. Smith has a decent (although not what I would call astounding) singing voice, evidenced in the a cappella "The Old Smite," and he plays bass, flute, cello and concertina quite well. McFarlane is an excellent bouzouki player, and holds his own with guitars and mandolin. There are a few tracks on the album where the potential of the band is realized. "The Unquiet Grave" features excellent instrumentals and and all-round good sound, "Maid on the Shore" is much more expressive than some of their other material, and "Carrickfergus" has to be my personal favorite. It has good flow and lovely instrumentals.

I'd have to say that this particular album by Brown Ale -- looking at the overall picture and the general feeling I had when I finished listening to it -- is a bit of a flop. However, there are a number of good elements present, and the band has the potential to develop a good sound. With a little polishing, and by focusing on their strengths, Brown Ale's next album might be something more worth listening to.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 30 June 2001