Great Northern,
(Great Big Tater, 2002)

Most bluegrass groups, no matter how high and lonesome, have a bit of the wild roamer in them. Bluegrass often announces itself in the whine of guitars and the wailing of rough voices bemoaning their fate. Great Northern hides themselves in the song of a "Little Bird," with an almost shy flourish of resonating strings and understated vocals.

The gentleness of "Little Bird" is evident in Great Northern's whole approach to bluegrass. Tales of sinners like "Louise" and "Judas is My Name" carry a forgiving sentiment in the flow of the notes that doesn't need to be spelled out. The instruments are relaxed without ever being restrained, and lead vocalist Tim Eccles has the natural ease of a storyteller even through the wild tales of "When I Was a Cowboy." This easy approach is a bit of a surprise in sad ballads like "Blue and Lonesome," and captures perfectly the gentle sting of "The Hurting When You Go," as two lovers drift apart for no clear reason. It makes the wild songs even more heart-skipping, as Great Northern abandons their slow attitude to romp their way through the story of the deplorable "Magnolia" and bounce along with the "Decca Stomp." The instruments and vocals are so intertwined that the few instrumentals sound like there's merely been a change of instruments, rather than a whole voice dropping out.

Though the terribly catchy lyrics are treat to sing along with, the instrumentals on the album showcase Great Northern's string-plucking prowess and make the ear want more. "Frosty Morning" promises a warming afternoon in the glow of its arrangement. "Glasgow Gaelic" plays clear homage to the Gaelic influence in bluegrass without losing a leaf of that bluegrass style. "Stompin' at Decca" is an obvious dance tune, so enthusiastic it could just about set the furniture moving. The impressive variety of Great Northern's strings is almost hidden by the smooth unity of their sound, even while the deep tones of Brian Samuels' cello and Paul Bergman's bass give a new stability to the more usual guitar and Iain MacIntyre's lively banjo. Along with Doug Thordarson's viola and Craig McGregor's mandolin, the range of sound available from the large group helps define the Great Northern feel.

Great Northern ends with the summer sweet "Bonaparte's Retreat," a blessing for love and simple peace so gentle it's almost meditative. Along with "Little Bird," it helps highlight the gentle undertones of this energetic, good-natured album. After one hearing of 3 the songs will fall into the place of warm memories, coming back to comfort on chill nights and playing themselves as soundtracks on fine days. That haunting quality gives this brief album a lasting effect that might just last until 4 arrives.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 6 September 2003