Tom Lewis,
360 Degrees
(Borealis, 2003)

Tom Lewis's latest album, 360 Degrees, is an interesting collection of songs with a nautical theme running throughout. The choices of songs and the arrangements suit both Lewis's voice and the material. The nautical theme is appropriate for a former member of the Royal Navy and his passion for this topic is evident in his enthusiastic singing. A happy, joyful tone resonates throughout the album and the addition of many guest musicians creates a solid, full sound.

Opening the album is a Lewis original called "Radio Times," which effectively takes us through the last 50 years of popular music! That's a pretty phenomenal feat in under five minutes. The well-known "Port of Call," featuring a less-well-known crosscut saw, and the traditional (but popularized by the Beach Boys) harmony-laden "Nassau Bound" bring the nautical theme forward with no attempt to hide or disguise. The tone turns slightly silly with "St. Patrick's Song," about both the saint and the celebrations around the world in his name.

Robert Lewis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling each provide a narrative song, Kipling's being rather epic at over eight a cappella minutes. Lyle Lovett even contributes "If I Had a Boat" proving, as Lewis notes, that even country singers "have a yearning for the ocean." There are no apologies here for Lewis's love of his sailor songs, be they old or new, and his honest, evident enjoyment are as nice to experience as the music.

The highlight of the album is "One Big Ocean," composed by Lewis in partial answer to a rather perceptive fourth grader's question. With the help of a very large group of children and adults singing the chorus, the song is a profoundly good answer to "what are the names of the seven seas?" highlighting the interconnectedness of all the water in the world, while retaining an air of innocence. It is far and away the best song on the album.

The none-too-subtle theme of the album emerges once again for a block of songs including "The Nipper," "Blow the Man Down," "According to the Act" and "The Bos'n, the Gunner & Me." If you are interested in sailing songs, you cannot miss this album because Lewis seems to have an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of them, whatever the particular topic, as long as it is connected to sailing.

The songs tend to be quite long, or at least feel that way at times and the nautical theme gets a bit tiresome after awhile if you don't share Lewis's passion, although Lewis and his mass of backing musicians and singers (featuring the band Tanglefoot) have held onto their high levels of energy throughout, which helps. If the whole lot of them didn't seem to be having such a good time, I'm not sure I would like this album much, but the energy and sense of fun is infectious making the album good fun to listen to. Lewis's voice is strong, easily leading the songs or singing a cappella, and the collaborative effort on the arrangements creates full-sounding, well-harmonized pieces. This album is recommended to lovers of nautical and folk music, especially if you like high energy throughout!

by Jean Emma Price
19 November 2005

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