by Ryan Belbin
It’s easy to take the collaborative friendship of Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle and Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe for granted, particularly with the former’s role as a minstrel in Robin Hood last year, and the latter’s highly publicised visit to St. John’s. Outside of the spotlight, however, the two initially bonded over music, writing and recording songs together over the last number of years.
The Crowe/Doyle Songbook, Vol. III is Crowe’s most recent foray into music, since the Doyle-produced My Hand, My Heart in 2005. Whereas that record was clearly based around Crowe’s band, the Ordinary Fear of God, the Songbook is all about the duo.
The album, which exists solely as a digital record, can best be described as a singer-songwriter collection of tunes. Doyle’s band is a good starting place in describing the sound, particularly with its contemporary folk vibes, but that doesn’t quite cut it. There are influences of rock (“Perfect in your Eyes”), old-school country (“Killing Song”), heraldic folk (“Queen Jane”), and even R&B (“Love is Impossible”), but the production and mouthfuls of poetry are what stand out. The nine songs on Songbook are denser in subject matter, music, and lyrics – don’t expect any breezy pop songs, but don’t misinterpret the album for pessimistic or cynical.
Take the chorus from the leading single, “Too Far Gone,” about a doomed relationship: “Your fingers tear at my skin / Release the blood, let the feeding begin / Your intentions will never be blamed / We’re both too far gone to be saved.” The word that immediately comes to mind is sophisticated, and any concern that this project is just a novelty ought to be dismissed.
The two musicians are joined on most songs by Danielle Spencer, an Australian recording artist who also happens to be married to Crowe. With three distinct voices at their disposal, the opportunities for interesting arrangements and nuances are numerous, especially considering that Great Big Sea have turned harmonies into a trump card. However, the performers share the mic more often than not, usually singing the same melody line, reminiscent of a few friends having an impromptu jam. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the lyrics and the music are at such a high calibre that you can’t help but wonder how the songs would have sounded if they had taken the effort to explore the vocal arrangements. There are glimpses of this, where the voices become distinct and offer different perspectives to a single song – the bridge of “Sadness of a Woman” does it best – and they make the melding all the more conspicuous.
Crowe himself has been performing music since the ’90s, but it’s tough to picture the Gladiator with a guitar, and begs the question of whether or not he can actually sing. His growl is so similar to Doyle’s baritone that the two voices gravitate towards a single entity, and when one stands out it’s usually Doyle, so we never really get to hear him alone. Still, he’s not sitting on the sidelines or ridding any coattails (or, even worse, lending his famous name to the project); the partnership demands the two musicians complement each other, and that’s ultimately what happens.
Also noteworthy, The Crowe/Doyle Songbook includes the original demos of all the songs. Although the final versions are stronger, these tracks offer the bare bones of the lyrics and instrumentation, and suddenly the “friends having a jam” image becomes “friends having a jam, and you’re personally invited.” With the release of this album coinciding with Doyle and Crowe’s intimate and informal shows at the LSPU Hall, the duality makes sense: two experienced artists at the top of their games, crafting quality songs that, when the lights go down and they abandon their egos to embrace acoustic vulnerability, are still capable of standing on their own.
By the sounds of it, neither is too far gone yet: