Upon a Painted Ocean, by Admirals Hard
Suggested by Simon Rodway
This review was written at 23:40 on the seventeenth of January 2021.
Against all fathomable odds, Sea Shanties are in the news today. Someone is taking the internet by storm, with Sea Shanties, on the very day I’m tasked to review an album of the things for this project. The Randomiser has impeccable timing.
At the centre of the current, and intensely fleeting, craze is a Scottish postman with a Tik Tok channel. His renditions of Sea Shanties have hit on a community of spirit in the wider world, and he’s attained a level of viral fame. All power to him, say I. With a high and a ho and a rum up your bum.
According to Midshipman Google, Sea Shanties are work songs commonly sung to accompany rhythmic labour on board large merchant sailing vessels. Their use and category was historically exacting, with variants and rhythms assigned to certain functions. There was the long-drag shanty, the short-drag shanty, the sweating-up chant, the hand over hand, the bunt, the stamp and go. And they were just for hauling. For heaving, you had the capstan shanty, the windlass shanty, the pump shanty, and miscellaneous extras.
As the fleets began adopting steam and machines at the end of the Nineteenth Century, so the shanties became obsolete. Their legacy was preserved by older seamen passing the songs down to the younger folk, to be sung for entertainment. Then came the recording industry, and lo, we have maritime history.
Admirals Hard are a seven-piece vocal ensemble that are Plymouth-adjacent, that specialise in Sea Shanties and sport members from Cardiacs, Knifeworld, Guapo, Gong, Mediaeval Baebes and more. I only know of Gong, with their teapots in the sky.
Upon a Painted Ocean begins with the a cappella Boney Was a Warrior, charting the exploits of Napolean. It then moves into the lilting and lyrical Spanish Ladies, which Google did stress was not actually a Sea Shanty, but more a Sea Song (as in a song sung by the workers in their spare time). The album proceeds apace, full of titles that are either classics (like Blow the Man Down) or have-name-that-sounds-like-it-should-be classic (like Hullabaloo Belay, or All For Me Grog). There’s a mixture of pure vocal Shantying and understated musical Shantying, and one Shanty has no words at all (The Random Jig / I’ll Get Wedded in My Auld Claes). I’ve no idea what a Claes is, be it Neu or Auld, but I’m sure I’ll find out in due course.
The problem I have with this album is that… it’s just a load of Sea Shanties. The “singing” is conversational in tone, as befits the genre, and it does nothing at all to rouse, interest or impress me. I can’t think of a time when I’d ever want to listen to this, aside from the random chance I’m studying for a Sea Shanty exam somewhere down the line. As I live in Leeds, which is as far from the sea as possible as far as the UK goes, I doubt that’ll happen unless my career takes a breath-taking turn for the worse.
Upon a Painted Ocean gets 4/10. If I ever find myself heaving or hauling, I’m sure I can find something more edifying than this to power me through the day.