Great Lake Swimmers has always been a band - or a vehicle for frontman Tony Dekkar’s songs - about atmosphere. The eponymous debut record from 2003 was recorded in an abandoned silo. Bodies and Minds, the follow-up, was recorded in a church, while the third record, Ongiara, was made in Aeolian Hall, a famous music venue in Ontario. Lost Channels, the band’s 2009 record, was culled from sessions in various locations, drawing different vibes from each. Dekkar also had a revolving door of musicians around him to create different feels for his organic, haunting brand of folk, and on top of all that Dekkar drenches his hushed voice in reverb at nearly every turn, making it echo out into the weighty space he creates around these songs.
The new record, New Wild Everywhere, breaks up this approach in a number of ways. It marks the first time the band has worked in a studio, and the line-up here seems to have solidified into something permanent, as if Dekkar is finally the head of a band and not the center of a loose collective. The change makes for an album that feels sometimes self-assured and under control and at other times far too hemmed in. Though that uneven feel slows things down in places, there are some compelling sonic changes like the ones apparent on opener “Think That You Might Be Wrong”. In some ways, it is another song after deep echo, but it gets there differently. Instead of dusty, ringing acoustic guitar, the song is built on a soft electric rippling with chorus effects. It offers a nice shift away from the singer-songwriter vibe the band often settles into and proves them a subtle, intricately layered unit.
Over that echoing guitar, and the other layers, Dekkar’s voice is clarion clear. There’s no reverb effects to be heard, no gauzy treatments to smudge the shape of his words. As it turns out, his voice is just as beautiful and tuneful without the haze, and he nails key lines in the song, like when he keens “you’re larger than life” only to pull the rug out with “when the lighting is right”. Dekkar’s approach to songwriting hasn’t changed much. He’s still plainspoken, prone to nature metaphors, and hinting at something either melancholy or mystical or both just on the edges of his vision.
But there are moments here where those words, in their quiet way, catch us off guard with their insights. “Should have known, living in a storm / you’d act like thunder, and shift your form,” he half-whispers in “The Knife”, and you can feel the tension under his breath. On “Cornflower Blue”, he captures the ghostly free feel of the expanse of a cornfield, which puts it in line with so many great landscape songs he’s writing - in this way, he’s reminiscent of a younger Neil Young. But he also branches out into more topical territory on songs like the BP oil spill dirge “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife”. And though the song feels a little too on the nose, Dekkar still cuts deep with lines like “the papers say they knocked us on our knees / but we were already on our knees.”
At its best moments, the band finds varied canvases to lay Dekkar’s songs out on. There’s the warm, alt-country thump of “Changes With the Wind” or the twangy rock-pop of “Easy Come Easy Go”. Sometimes they build his balladry up into something bigger, on the excellent, piano-y shuffle of “Fields of Progeny”. Sometimes, they smartly go for less is more, as on the spare French-sung closer “Les Champs De Progeniture”.
So Great Lake Swimmers sounds for all the world like a professional band. But that ends up being a bit of a problem over the album’s 50-minute-plus running time. On the heels of Lost Channels, their most varied work, the different tones here feel like much slighter turns, as if you can hear the limitation of the studio walls on every song. For all Dekkar’s ability to evoke landscape in his lyrics, their effect is dulled without a recording atmosphere to match them. So when the band tries to rough up their sound with light distortion on the title track, or give lilting strings front billing on “Parkdale Blues”, the effect is interesting but somehow inorganic. The tighter playing certainly points out chemistry between the players, and that goes a long way towards making New Wild Everywhere a charming and solid entry in the Great Lake Swimmers’ discography. But, in the end, what limits these songs is that, instead of hearing that titular abandon stretching out around them, what you’re more likely to feel is them bumping up against those soundproof studio walls, contained in a way they shouldn’t be.