Toronto indie-folk band Great Lake Swimmers is a love them or hate them proposition. While they’ve been shortlisted for the Polaris Prize and a Juno Award—Canada’s answer to the Grammys—they’re decidedly an acquired taste. I saw them live at 2006’s Ottawa Bluesfest on a hot day while dehydrated, and their set ranks in my memory as one of the most boring concerts I’ve ever witnessed. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was dying of thirst but had no money to buy myself a bottle of water, but the fact remains (at least to me) that they played the same languorous style of folk at a snail’s pace and it really felt like the band was playing the same song over and over again. While sitting under a tree, trying my best to beat the oppressive sun’s rays, I witnessed what must have been a 45-minute show that seemed to stretch on into eternity. So perhaps it may just be that drummer Colin Huebert grew as bored with the band as I did on that summer’s day, and realized Great Lake Swimmers had a limited sonic palette. Or maybe just he wanted to move to British Columbia to work on an organic farm, which he wound up doing. In any event, Huebert decided to break away from the band and start a rival band called Siskiyou – with he formed along with current Great Lake Swimmer guitarist Erik Arnesen – and they’ve certainly been busy. The group released their self-titled debut album last fall to scattered applause, and already they have a sophomore release ready to roll out just little more than a year later: Keep Away the Dead.
There’s a dark and morbid theme that runs throughout the album, which you can pretty much glean from reading a list of the song titles: “Keep Away the Dead”, “Fiery Death”, “Dead Right Now” – and if you throw in “So Cold” and “Sing Me to Sleep”, you pretty much will get the idea of where Huebert’s headspace is right now. In fact, the very first words uttered on this disc are “Death to me / Death to him / Let’s all die young”. And that’s not to speak of a mention of the undead that comes later on that very same song: “Keep away all the zombies in my life.” What’s more, some of the songs on the album struggle to stay alive: the aforementioned opener “Keep Away the Dead” inserts drum and cymbal sounds that build up into a cacophony of pounding that sputters along like a flame that’s been trying to stay alight in a gusty breeze. There’s a certain fragility at play here, evidenced, too, by the half minute of sleigh bell sounds that open “Where Does That Leave Me” before the delicate vocals kick in, augmented by a sparsely plucked acoustic guitar. In fact, much of Keep Away the Dead has a quiet solitude feel to it, one that is reminiscent of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. However, there are squalls of electric guitar feedback here and there, along with blighted banjos, swooping strings and triumphant trumpets to kick up the sound and make it seem as though this is an album that wasn’t recorded alone in an abandoned cabin in the middle of nowhere. Heck, even the song that label Constellation has used to promote the album, “Twigs and Stones”, nestles closely into Arcade Fire territory as a “Neighborhood”-esque rave up.
Where Keep Away the Dead is a bit lacking is in the earnest, overly plaintive vocals and wavering consistency of approach. Songs like “Not the Kind” lumber on as though they’re trying to paint a sonic soundscape awash in all sorts of effects and sounds, as opposed to building into an actual piece of music. The album is also isn’t sure if it wants to be laid back and folksy, or rock out – particularly in the case of “Fiery Death”, which alternates between being a quietly strummed folk song, and a jug band workout with all sorts of drumming pyrotechnics. This might be a case of the group expanding to be a four piece with this album—Shaunn Watt and Peter Carruthers have joined the band—and in their quest to be considered a “real” outfit, as opposed to a Great Lakes Swimmers offshoot, there’s a certain amount of fumbling around, as though Huebert was unsure as to what to do with the additional members.
Still, despite its shortcomings, Keep Away the Dead is a dense, interesting listen that one can appreciate for its songcraft on a first go round as well as subsequent spins. There is an inviting quality to the music, despite all of its bursts of garishness, especially if you’re trapped in a dark room and are feeling listless and lonely. Keep Away the Dead, despite its black lyricism, offers the occasional moment of hope, such as on the uplifting “Twigs and Stones” to keep things from going a little too far over the edge. There’s also the bluegrass feel of “Revolution Blues” and the countrified twang of “Dear Old Friend” that will have listeners entranced. All in all, the disc is one that you have to approach with a fair amount of patience and a willingness to embrace its unique sense of songwriting. There is plunder-worthy material here, but you have to mire yourself against the odd piece of flotsam and jetsam that emerges from the ocean of 10 songs that floats on by. If flawed, challenging works are appealing to you, Keep Away the Dead is something of an intriguing album, enough for one to come to terms with it and embrace it for at least trying to up the ante with what can be constructed out of woodsy, folkloric sounds. If anything, Siskiyou might be most responsible for the fact that the mere existence of the band will take a little bit of the bad taste that Great Lakes Swimmers might have left in your mouth, as it did mine at least. On Keep Away the Dead, Huebert and company are going beyond playing the same old song over and over again, which is a welcome relief if you’re sick of the same tired refrain that his previous band seemed to mire itself in.
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// Sound Affects
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