Great North are a distinctly lyrical alt.country, Americana band based in Auckland. They’ve been around for a few years now…they released their first album, Newfoundland, two years ago.
While the line-up of the band has remained constant over that time, the chemistry has changed a bit. Songwriter and vocalist Hayden Donnell has married bass player Rachel Harrison. The other bandmembers are Dale Campbell (piano, acoustic guitar), Strahan Cole (electric guitars) and Olly Scott-Dye (drums). Producer Dave Parker seems to be a sixth member of the band, adding bass, guitar, percussion and banjo when needed.
While Great North retains their rustic vibe on Halves, there are some points of difference. Musically, the tracks are a bit quieter, more reflective and the lyrical content is more focussed on matters of the heart (I guess marriage will do that to a songwriter).
Opening track The Spring Tide is a perfect introduction to the album. The acoustic guitar along with Hayden’s voice gives a certain Dylan-esque quality to the track, and the melody is slightly reminiscent of Girl From The North Country (appropriately enough). The production and arrangement shows off the band’s strengths. The track builds up from just guitar and voice to piano to Rachel’s harmony vocal to steel guitar til finally the full band comes crashing in as Hayden sings, “I am roaring like the Lion of Judah”.
It is evident that Hayden Donnell is an accomplished wordsmith. Lines like, “I remember that fire-swept hillside, copper wire running through your lips” are to be admired. They sound even better when accompanied by the band’s music.
The second song, When You Go, reminded me a bit of Will Sheff and Okkervil River…nothing wrong with that, as Sheff is one of the finest lyricist writing today. Elsewhere, fans of The Jayhawks and/or Uncle Tupelo will find some common ground here.
A couple of the album’s high points come later in the piece. The title track features Hayden and Rachel each taking a verse, followed by a long instrumental coda.
When You’re Letting Go, the album’s closer, is also its most passionate. While on earlier songs he is pondering the viability of long-term relationships (To Leave Someone), here he’s determined through the strength of his voice, words and piano, to make a go off it, intoning, “I’m not letting go”.
The album threatens to fall into some kind of alt.country doldrums during the middle of the album, but manages to shake any musical complacency off and finish up with a winning clutch of songs at the end.
Click here to listen to The Spring Tide from Halves: