"As seen on TV" boasts the sleeve sticker proudly, directly under a helpfully explanatory line about the music we find within: "Hearty sea shanties delivered from the rugged north Cornwall coast." It doesn't initially scream a surefire commercial proposition but–make no mistake–at a point when quirky authenticity seems to be the Holy Grail for major record labels, this is A Serious Marketing Project.
It's easy to be cynical, then, about the £1m budget apparently unleashed to ensure its success. But it's equally difficult not to be seduced by the idea of 10 burly middle-aged blokes from a tiny but spectacularly beautiful village in Cornwall singing primitive sea shanties and getting to share a record label with Lady Gaga.
Only three of them are actually fishermen. But the Friends–eight of whom went to school together–have been belting out soaring harmonies and big choruses in local pubs for 15 years (appearing twice at London's Royal Albert Hall, supporting fellow West Country band Show of Hands), though sales of their previous CDs have primarily been limited either to tourists or mail order customers. That all changed when DJ Johnnie Walker discovered them in Port Isaac, and here they are delivering populist sea anthems like South Australia, Haul Away Joe, Sweet Ladies of Plymouth and The Mingulay Boat Song with endless vigour, if limited sophistication.
It was mostly recorded in a local church, though questions may justifiably be asked about the shiny production gleam that's been strategically added, along with flailing pipes, booming drums and other unnecessary instrumentation to create an irritating artificiality. They flounder completely when tackling more contemporary material like the anthemic lead-off single No Hopers, Jokers and Rogues and the alt-country mess that is The Union of Different Minds.
The simple beauty of the hymn Brightly Beams underlined by a mournful trumpet and the natural richness of their singing on the unaccompanied Cadgwith Anthem illustrate the folly of diluting their raw essence–their magic can't be bottled into something fizzy. As a modern interpretation of shanty songs, the Johnny Depp-inspired 2006 album Rogue's Gallery beats it into a cocked (sailors) hat. --Colin Irwin
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