For their sixth album, A Forest of Arms, The Great Lake Swimmers find their principal songwriter and lead voice, Tony Dekker, at his most potent. The album bristles with some of their strongest tunes and the most dynamic playing that the band have realised so far. The success of the record is perhaps aided by retaining the core quartet from the last album and focussing on their key skills of driving guitars and banjo, swooping strings and bounding bass lines, overlaying a varied, vital percussive heartbeat. After their last mostly studio bound affair, crucially they’ve also returned to their more usual, or should that be unusual, recording techniques, bringing the great outdoors into the heart of the record, while Tony’s mix of the global and the deeply personal, suggests that we need to find the paths to reconnect to the natural world.
While these are not new ideas for Great Lake Swimmers, the very title of their last album, New Wild Everywhere, was emblematic, this record sounds fresh and pristine, like a deep draught of the pure Canadian wilderness air that Tony holds so dear.
For non-Canadians, the story that got them to this point is worth a recap, as over the course of two albums released through the newly formed (weework) label in 2003 and 2005, The Great Lake Swimmers established themselves at the forefront of the Canadian indie music scene. In the course of doing so, the band, who originally hailed from Ontario, established a pattern of seeking out interesting and alternative places to record, perhaps trying to tap into some wider ambience than the studio naturally allowed. The unusual name or their parent label was a play on being a much smaller version (hence wee) of Canadian band management and recording powerhouse Nettwerk and perhaps inevitably, on the back of their success, Great Lake Swimmers, made the transition to the larger company for the release of their third album Ongiara in 2007.
That release continued the same working methods, being largely recorded in Ontario’s Aoelian Hall, but is actually named after the boat that took them to Toronto Island, where they made early recordings for the album. It’s also a reference to the original Iroquois name for the Niagara Falls and with that comes the suggestion of connection both to human history and the natural world, two strong themes that Great Lake Swimmers have continuously called upon.
If that third album gave them their first real taste of proper success, spawning a radio hit with the song Your Rocky Spine, it was the follow up Clear Channels that really established the band, riding a wave of acclaim and ultimately winning multiple award nominations across the Canadian music industry. Again it was recorded differently and remotely, in and around the Thousand Islands region, on the borders of Toronto and New York State. The central idea that the different environments were used to create atmosphere and influence the performances and recordings became much more categorically stated through interviews around that time. Also, the track Singer Castle Bells is exactly that, the hourly chimes recorded on site, at one of the locations used in the making of the record.
Both the tile and the artwork of the following New Wild Everywhere suggested the continued and even more explicit development of the themes of our connections to the natural world, and our often-small personal space within it. Perversely, however, it was the most studio based recording of the band career, perhaps in part because of an expanded roll call of guests who swelled the orchestration, creating the band’s biggest sounding and most satisfying album yet.
At the same time, however, the band coalesced around Tony Dekker and long-term guitarist Erik Arnesen, with the violin of Miranda Mulholland and the upright bass of Bret Higgins became the core. That quartet remains for A Forest Of Arms, with Joshua Von Tassell now occupying the drummer’s stool and guest appearances by Kevin Kane, a founder of Grapes Of Wrath. The band have returned to recording on location in the most dramatic fashion, capturing some vocals and acoustic guitars amidst the circling, and probably pretty confused, bats of the Tyendinaga Cavern and Caves in Ontario, giving a huge sonic space with its natural reverb.
If all of that, somewhat paradoxically, suggests something more concise, with its smaller cast list of players, but more expansive, with the natural environment and the cavern’s vastness being channelled into the record, then that’s probably about right. For starters, it’s a good 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor and also feels like a tightly scripted song cycle, although that impression may come largely through the reprise of the opening song at the end, albeit under a slightly different guise. But more than that, the repetition leads to the impression of the links between lyrical themes being fully expanded, realised and explored, while conversely, Great Lake Swimmers melodies have, if anything, become more refined and more elegant with each successive album release, and all the sweeter for it.
It should go without saying but A Forest Of Arms really does repay patience, a half dozen plays in and more, impressions are still shifting with new little details and feelings coming through on each return visit. Dekker has always written in bold impressionistic strokes allowing for your own interpretations, yet there is the profound feeling of the personal too, and as you shift the lyrical clues and musical cues, an intimate dialogue develops. Where that dialogue goes will be up to you.
“Something like a storm coming in,” Tony sings, delivering the portent in the title of the album’s opener in its first line. The track moves quickly on briskly strummed guitars and a bouncing bass, with shaker adding to the percussive swish and shimmer. The banjo bubbles through and then the violin throws stratospheric eddies across and then around the edges of the song. It swells ever upwards towards its glorious conclusion, as Miranda joins Tony in singing, “You’re in a place of safety now, You are with your mother now, Such a pretty place to live, And I’ve got a lot to give.”
Zero In The City changes the emotional barometer, linking a fall in the temperature to a separation. Whether it’s permanent or temporary displacement, might well reflect your own mood, although the melancholic tone sounds almost desolate. The orchestration of the bridge is simply beautiful and sweetens the sorrows as the song again builds towards its fitting finale. By contrast, Shaking All Over, seems to raise the temperature to feverish with it’s, “Snakes against angels,” and “Every day could be your last, So hurry darling, hurry fast.” There are conflicts of emotions here as Tony continues, “You’re my number one puncher, my number one fist, You’re my heaven and my heartbeat, my one true bliss, So let me down on the floor, I can’t take any more.” Again the melodic bass, and the clatter and splashing percussion adds propulsion, which the violin rides to telling effect as the electric guitar gives a dizzying, spiralling chase.
The pace rises and falls through the sorrowful Don’t Leave Me Hanging to the rocking, almost grungy One More Charge At The Red Cape as the insistent drone like verses of the latter nag and pull you into their cascade of words. I Was A Wayward Pastel Bay, slows things again with an almost jazzy meander led by the drums, as the natural world rises through Tony’s words again. If the meaning isn’t obvious in, “I was a wayward pastel bay, with a prized pelt,” there are further clues and the mood is pricked by, “That sense of rifled air, Shivered my sharp ears and tail.”
The imagery gets stronger and a little more direct in A Bird Flew Inside The House, with its banjo riffing, as Tony sings, “A bird flew inside the house, To remind me of a promise, I made to myself, To keep poison from the well, and serpents from the nest, Everything’s in danger, and heaven needs help.” Again in A Jukebox In A Desert Of Snow, he sings, “A jukebox in a desert of snow, Cold speakers, where nothing grows, but there is no limit to the fire under here, Down here, her crown is languishing.” It seems that personal and family health and peace of mind are linked directly to the state of the world and the impact we are having on it. The violin again cuts across and feedback dogs the verses above the songs heartbeat adding to an ominous urgency.
I Must Have Someone Else’s Blues seems like a fairly straightforward response to the gloom that can sometimes descend from who knows where, but in that, it could also throw a whole new spin on some of the other songs. At the same times it has an almost poppy lightness in the wistful, floating melody, more puzzled than woebegone.
The album somehow saves its best for last, however, with the final quarter delivering a sumptuous and stately run through to the end. The Great Bear is dreamy, with it’s steady piano and decorative tendrils as Tony invites us into the precious wilderness singing, “A forest of arms turning into fins, With ancient veins on granite chins, And avian songs fill the air with notes, diving in, The hard edges green with newly grown coats.” With Every Departure keeps things down tempo and is another string laden, eye moistening reverie, sweet in it lugubrious pleasures, while retaining hope in the lines, “How far will you fly, towards the other side, How far will you go, before you come back home.” Finally the reprise of the opener, re-titled as Expecting You, comes through, sharp, direct and stripped of any haze.
As the CD has spun again and again, it’s gained in importance. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to it as it completes this near perfect circle of a record.
It’s a warm and welcoming embrace of a song, a blissful moment like a returning friend, as the song itself tells you, “I’ve been waiting patiently, Singing little melodies.” And that you have Tony, such blissful little melodies sung so well.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Nettwerk
Order via: Amazon