Artist: The Dreadnoughts
Album: Victory Square
Label: Stomp Records
The Dreadnoughts have the lofty distinction of being the first band to take top honours as this site's "top 20 albums of 2008" champion - so to say that they had large shoes to fill going into this review is an understatement. I raved about their debut night and day, and nary a friend of mine has yet to be exposed to the shanty tales of Vancouver's newest celtic-punk quintet. In fact, one of my new year's resolutions was to see The Dreadnoughts live, and in early March that became a glorious reality.
When deciding on which concert to attend I made sure it was the "CD Release Party" for the band's followup release, Victory Square. So I set out from my sheltered suburban home to the heart of downtown Vancouver, to a little dive that The Dreadnoughts had come to call home. But when I arrived at the release party, Victory Square was nowhere to be seen. Upon talking with violinist Seamus O Flanigan (undoubtedly the highlight of the evening) I learned that the band had just signed with Stomp Records and would be holding the album back until May. Needless to say, with the delay my anticipation only grew.
But as the release date grew closer I began having doubts, and I couldn't help but think that I was setting myself up for disappointment. I couldn't get into the preview songs featured on the band's myspace, and when May 19th rolled around, the clips on iTunes were far from satisfying. But alas, I reserved judgement until my copy finally arrived in the mail. What I found upon my first listen was both terrifying and exhilarating.
I soon learned that despite mere months separating their debut from Victory Square, that The Dreadnoughts are a dynamic band who aren't afraid of pushing their musical boundaries. While their self titled debut featured a pretty speedy tempo, it pales in comparison when placed alongside the intensity, and complexity evident throughout Victory Square. In fact, the most aggressive songs boast Seamus' fiddle as you've never heard before. In the opening track, "Hottress," the strokes are absolutely unrelenting, and four tracks later completely steal centre stage in "Samovar." But the difference isn't merely one of frequency, it's also one of influence. To expand their sound the band now draws inspiration from eastern european influences, giving the band a slight gypsy tinge reminiscent of Gogol Bordello. For example, the poetically read "Boneyard" walks a fine line between celtic and gypsy music. And to further complicate thing, they even have a traditional instrumental polka half way through the album. There's no doubt about it, The Dreadnoughts have ambition.
But that isn't to say The Dreadnoughts have abandoned the shanty roots that put them on the map. Rest assured, The Fang's vocals sound as rough and passionate as ever, and songs like "The West Country," "Grace O'Malley," and "Victory Square" all sound like throwbacks to the larger than life tracks that kicked off The Dreadnoughts' career. Even the tin whistle makes several welcome appearances and provides an almost maritime-like feel. With the fiddle taking centre stage in many of the most frantic tracks, a slower tempo provides a great opportunity to reintroduce Seasmus' moody accordion back into the mix. If I have one real complaint about the stylistic changes, it is that with more fiddle comes less accordion. It's a small gripe, but one that was likely at the root of my initial scepticism when listening to clips and promotional songs.
Being familiar with The Dreadnoughts' hometown, much of Victory Square's lyrical content really hit home. While the bulk of songs still hark grand voyages and epic encounters - "Samovar" and "Amsterdam" come to mind - many of the pub anthems have explicit and well developed references to Vancouver's notoriously rough east side. The band inserts a social consciousness that balances sorrowful realities with vibrant and lively lifestyles. Specifically, songs like "Ivanhoe" explore Vancouver's pub culture by contrasting the pompous, overpriced (19 dollar beer anyone?) offerings of west side locations like Granville and Robson with the excitement and cheap thrill of Mainstreet dives like the Ivanhoe Hotel. Meanwhile, the final track, "Victory Square," uses a slow tempo and thoughtful, drawn out fiddle strokes when exploring the visible class divide that quite literally separates Vancouver's lost and forgotten from mainstream society. By employing a balance of celebration and hardship, The Dreadnoughts tactfully capture Vancouver's class struggles without victimizing its east side residents.
So what we end up with a vibrant, socially conscious album that easily helps justify The Dreadnoughts' quick rise to fame. Despite my initial skepticism, a few listens washed my worries away. Put simply, anyone who fancy's themselves a Dropkick Murphys, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly or general celtic punk enthusiast needs Victory Square. And now for a cheesy promotional pun that I mean with utmost sincerity - don't let The Dreadnoughts set sail without you, for Victory Square is a journey you won't soon forget.