If Newfoundland and Labrador had to choose a musical ambassador to send out into the world, I suspect the profoundly likeable, contemporary folk trio, The Once would receive the call.
Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill, and Andrew Dale have essentially been doing just this for close to 10 years now; touring the world, collecting Juno and ECMA nominations, Music NL and Canadian Folk Music awards, and accolades from the likes of English singer-songwriter Passenger.
The Once released their newest offering, Time Enough this May. It’s their second go-around with producer Daniel Ledwell, and while their last album (also produced by Ledwell) bears the title Departures, it’s Time Enough that truly marks the departure for the band.
The Once have come up alongside other indie-folk revival acts like The Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons, but always with their feet planted firmly in Newfoundland’s Celtic-inspired traditional music community.
It’s this overwhelming sense of place that actually puts them closer to folk revival artists Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, with their articulation of the hollowed out Appalachian mountains, and Dust Bowl landscapes. One act combines textured harmony-driven vocals with a mouthful of dirt, and the other, salt.
The Once have always woven various musical strands together, but on Time Enough, the band firmly embraces the warm production of 1970s AM radio. Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor and Carly Simon, all come to mind.
The first single “I Can’t Live Without You” is a simple and direct soft pop-rock number with nary a trace of the band’s traditional East Coast sound. Indeed, upon first listen the band’s earlier signature Maritime sound seems almost completely absent from Time Enough.
These first half dozen listens are deceptive though. Despite the obvious sonic shift, the trio is just as in unison with one another as they’ve always been, perhaps even more so. The songs remain anchored in layered harmonies and the duality of the tragedy and triumph, or misery and happiness that tends to define this place.
In this sense, The Once are not from Newfoundland, as much as they are of Newfoundland. In other words, there may be smatterings of 70s horns and even 80s synth throughout Time Enough, but The Once have not magically morphed into the band Chicago.
With each album they’ve continued pushing their sound into new territory, but I suspect the lush arrangements of songs like “Before the Fall”, “Any Other Way”, and “You Don’t Love Me” will sound every bit as much like The Once you know and love, the moment they take to the stage to sing and play them live. Geraldine Hollett’s voice still perfectly captures the pristine and the weary, just as it has on each previous album.
Like Gillian Welch’s 2003 fantastic electric detour Soul Journey, The Once may very well pivot back towards their traditional folk sound on future albums. Whether they return to their roots or continue pushing, however, their signature sound will remain in tact so long as the trio continues moving together.
The beauty of The Once has always been that the sum of the group is greater than their individual parts. They may take their name from an old Newfoundland saying, roughly meaning “in a minute”, but it is this unison; this “onceness” with one another, and with their sense of place that truly defines The Once, wherever they choose to go.
Stand out tracks: Before the Fall, You Don’t Love Me, Foreign Shore.