I shall open with a candid admission. Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers is the only band in my recollection that has literally put me to sleep in a live setting. Usually when someone says that an artist “puts them to sleep”, it’s a snarky euphemism meant to emphasize the perceived soft-rock leanings of said artist. But they rarely mean that said artist’s music has actually induced them to lose consciousness.
Great Lake Swimmers induced me to sleep, perchance to dream. It couldn’t have totally been their fault; it was a hot day at a folk music festival, and I was lying on my back on a verdant park lawn with my eyes closed and the brim of my cap shielding my face from the blazing sun, as Tony Dekker and his folky collaborators plied their trade. Slipknot could have been ripping it up onstage and I still likely would have slumbered. It’s far from an unpleasant memory, and plenty of artists have been very successful at crafting exquisite lullaby-rock. But this episode stands out in my mind as a precise measure of Great Lake Swimmers’ effect. It’s both a criticism and a commendation. They make great music to listen to as you lie in the grass and fall asleep.
So much of this assessment boils down to Dekker’s front-and-center vocals. Though often praised for its warm, rustic tone, I find Dekker’s voice to be a flat and unmoving horizon, like the large freshwater bodies that are referenced in his band’s name and often haunt his lyrical imagination. From the inhabited lakefronts at their edges, any swells or dangers are miles away, unintelligible beyond the line between the waves and the sky. Dekker’s thin expressive timbre doesn’t even generally live up to the grandeur of that analogy. It’s pretty rather than beautiful, temporal rather than ethereal, lacking in resonance and never particularly stirring.
This is unfortunate, for the Swimmers are musically attuned to the ghosts of Canadiana and inspired by the sublimity of the natural wonders that surround the insecure urban metropolis they call home (though said metropolis and the star of its skyline – the CN Tower – gets its own alienated exploration in the gorgeous “Concrete Heart”). Their last release was 2007’s breakthrough Ongiara, which took its moniker from the Iroquois name for Niagara Falls. Its follow-up is Lost Channels, which refers to the picturesque and mysterious Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
On Lost Channels, Dekker unfolds the sort of mystical neo-hippie odes to the sun and the moon that one would expect from a songwriter with such environmental muses. These sunset ballads sink away through the album’s last half, which consists of earnest and mournful piano-whisperers like “River’s Edge” (“we turn against the darkness with intention”) and ambient gasps for air like the uncertain “Stealing Tomorrow”. These are the sort of wistful compositions that put me out on that folk-fest lawn; reflections of the peculiar nationalist view of landscapes that is so prevalent in Canada. Dekker aims to slip retiring human silhouettes into the iconic painted landscapes of the Group of Seven, Canada’s canonized visual poets-laureate. His sub-creations, while often very lovely and always lyrically rich, are drained of the striking Impressionist colors that defined the Group of Seven’s style of portraying the haunting landscapes of the north. Dekker’s voice accomplishes the emotional dredging, pulling the songs into a featureless dusk-hour light with its lilting monotone.
More vibrant are the upbeat Byrds-esque folk-rock and alt-country-pop cuts that mostly rule the record’s opening section. Though Dekker’s vocals remain at their constant keel, jangly outings like opener “Palmistry” and lead single “Pulling on a Line” at least vary the textures and time-signatures on offer. And perhaps Lost Channels‘s most effective songs are those that end the first side. The lithe “She Comes to Me in Dreams” features wizardly slide-guitar and memorable pound-and-chime breakdowns. “The Chorus in the Underground” is probably the best bluegrass stomper ever written about show-hopping hipsterdom.
A carillon from a Thousand Islands castle tower separates the jauntier first side from the pensive second side, but Dekker’s vocals are the great uniter. Great Lake Swimmers’ pleasures are deceptively simple, but one can’t help but get held up by the tactile surfaces of their elaborate simulacrum of shamanistic folk. Pull your hat over eyes and close them, and perhaps you can dream these songs into being something deeper and truer than they are. Maybe, if Tony Dekker will let you. For my part, the effort just makes me sleepy.