Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Great Lake Swimmers – The Waves, The Wake

Great Lake Swimmers – The Waves, The Wake (Nettwerk)

Tony Dekker can do a whole lot with just his acoustic guitar and his
absolutely stunning voice. That’s all that appeared on a sparsely
packaged CDR in 2003 that became the Great Lake Swimmers’ debut album. Over the past 15 years, the band expanded, increased both the tempo and the volume, and by the time of 2015’s A Forest of Arms, the band had morphed into a solid roots-rock outfit that didn’t sound all that different from dozens of their peers in Canada, for better or worse.

So it was time to throw out the acoustic guitar and start all over.

For the seventh Great Lake Swimmers album, Dekker doesn’t rely on any of his usual tricks—except his voice, which is front and centre, as it should be. Piano plays a key role, as does the banjo of his longest-serving bandmate, Eric Arnesen. But on the first track and lead single, “The Talking Wind,” Dekker is accompanied only by a woodwind ensemble. On the absolutely devastating “Falling Apart,” a classical harp provides lilting arpeggiation, with little else adding texture on the chorus. Most naked of all is the a cappella “Visions of a Different World,” featuring what sounds like Dekker laying down at least a five-part harmony underneath his lead vocal. On all these performances, the resonance of the 145-year-old church in London, Ontario, where this was recorded, is as much of a character as any instrument; this is by no means unusual for Dekker, of course, who has made his career out of finding odd places to record, starting with the abandoned Lake Erie grain silo where he made his debut record.

On what is no doubt a thrill for Dekker, one of his teenage musical heroes—Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath—provides atmospheric electric guitar on several tracks. (Disclosure: I commissioned Great Lake Swimmers to cover a Grapes of Wrath song for a compilation promoting my 2011 book, Have Not Been the Same.)

The Waves, The Wake is the most creatively invigorated this band has sounded in years. But there’s definitely a darkness beneath the calming surface. “Side effects aren’t worth the health you get / when you need all the help you can get,” sings Dekker on one track. On another he talks about how he “couldn’t smile when I needed to.” And neither of those lyrics even appear on the song called “Falling Apart.” Maybe they’re autobiographical, maybe not, but most people don’t need to look too far outside their family and circle of friends to find signs of mental illness. Heck, the last two years of hellish headlines and uncertain times have been enough to send anyone unravelling. The music of Great Lake Swimmers has always been a balm; this time the lyrics imply that the tone and tempo of this album were more necessary than ever for their creator.

But whether or not the musical shift was triggered by a mid-life crisis documented in the lyrics, Tony Dekker threw out his rulebook and came up with his best record in years. Those are deep waters, those Great Lakes, perpetual providers of inspiration and sustenance. Dive in. (Aug. 17)

Great Lake Swimmers are touring North America and Europe from now until December. Full dates here.

Stream: “The Talking Wind,” “Falling Apart,” “Visions of a Different World”

No comments: