Tom Lewis,
Mixed Cargo
(Borealis, 1999)

Tom Lewis, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, spent 24 years in the British Submarine Service before launching his career as a singer of nautical songs and shanties. I don't know if it's his Irish heritage or his years of sea service that gives his voice such a ring of authenticity, but he surely belts out the tunes on Mixed Cargo just as they should be sung.

He gives a fun solo rendition of "A Sailor's Consolation," which wittily pities those poor souls ashore, before switching sides and bemoaning the sailor's life in "An Ex-Sailor's Life," a Lewis original.

It's certainly his own experience which sparked the inspiration for the Lewis original "Showers" -- "Living in a submarine hygiene is a joke, / you don't use shampoo and you don't use soap. / Down by the bathroom hear the 'tanky' swear: / 'You'd better not waste any water in there!'"

Lewis keeps the mood a-changin' with a nicely eclectic selection. For instance, he follows up the melancholy original tune "Some Mother's Son" ("For the one thing that binds us, when all's said and done -- / every man dying is some mother's son.") with the lively, happy traditional song "Aye Sir, Aye." "Some Mother's Son," based on a tragic story from Lewis's native Belfast is a sad piece sung simply, voice over guitar, and accented with the soulful moaning of Northumbrian smallpipes. "Aye Sir, Aye" is an a cappella choral piece combining four male voices into a rollicking good "jolly lads" ballad.

That leads, oddly enough, to a grand a capella chorus (same four voices) of Doudleaux Bryant's pop hit "Devoted to You." It should seem out of place, but in the context of this album, it works perfectly as the promise of a sailor lad to his shorebound love.

The album includes a nice series of songs featuring Long Felt Want, a voices-only quartet comprising Lewis, Bernard Potter, Sooty Broughton and Pete Watkinson. These guys definitely belong together; their voices complement each other perfectly with smooth barbershop harmonies. Besides "Aye Sir, Aye" and "Devoted to You," the quartet's contributions include war songs like "F.I.R.E." and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," which they sing with the right amounts of exurberance and wistfulness, and their signature last call song, the sobering "Pull Down, Lads."

Many of the tunes feature just Lewis on lusty vocals, but he also borrows the vocal talents of Johnny Collins and Jim Mageean on a few as well. Some of the songs are recorded live, which adds an extra level -- particularly when his audience joins in and sings along. And yes, most of these certainly qualify as sing-along songs.

In all, there are 17 tracks on Mixed Cargo, and not one is wasted. If you feel the call of the sea or just enjoy to hear about it from the safety of land, this is a good album to have.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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