I spent a lot of time trying to find out where Ongiara, the title of the third Great Lake Swimmers’ record, came from. I was sure I was missing something, that it was some ancient, maybe spiritual word full of import, and that by finding its meaning I would have a better understanding of the record.
Well, as it turns out, Ongiara is the name of a boat that would ferry the band to where they first recorded. That’s it. There’s nothing mystic about it. But so things are with Tony Dekkar, lead singer and songwriter for Great Lake Swimmers. He takes the ordinary and makes you feel you’ve missed something in it until just now, when one of his aching folk songs illuminated it. So while the etymology of Ongiara may not be important, the music is vital. Dekkar and company have improved on their already solid work in every way with the new album, and it is some of the best music you’re likely to hear this year.
Frankly, to look over the art work and read some of the lyric sheet, you’d think the album succeeds in spite of itself, because it takes a serious step out on a limb. The soaring eagle on the cover and the constant references to the Canadian landscape could send GLS down the road traveled by the cheesy likes of John Denver. But the songs are too well crafted, the lyrics too rich for this to happen. Take the opener, “Your Rocky Spine”, where in the chorus Dekkar sings, “Floating on your rocky spine, the glaciers made you and now you’re mine”. Sure, there’s the literal meaning to take away from it—him looking out in reverence at his homeland’s peaks and valleys. But there’s enough of a hint of loss in the track that you know he is at least thinking of someone while he looks out on the mountains, even if he’s not singing directly to them.
Feelings of loss and isolation permeate the record. On “Backstage with the Modern Dancers”, Dekkar says “I’m writing a list of songs I can sing by myself”. While he watches the dancers perform on stage, he is backstage alone. Later in the record, he gets lost among his own kin in “I Am Part of a Large Family”. These moments where he is left alone outside of—for lack of a better term—the world should seem sadder. But, not unlike the Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely, there is something comforting both for the singer and the listener in these songs.
It may be the music that all these melancholy tales are set upon. Great Lake Swimmers’ work has always managed to be both lush and unassuming at the same time. To call their first, eponymous album sparse is to miss how Dekkar’s vocals fill so much space, how each pluck of the guitar, each sound made on the record, is carefully chosen and placed so that, upon close listening, you find there aren’t nearly as many holes as there first seemed to be. The second record, Bodies and Minds, found Dekkar employing more players, but the songs sounded more stripped down, somehow; less ghostly. With Ongiara, Great Lake Swimmers manage to marry the ethereal whisper of the first record with the tight song structures of the second. There is also some beautiful electric guitar work that makes “I Am Part of a Large Family” soar, and adds a surprising jump to “Put There by the Land”. These songs are full with banjo and guitar and keys and percussion, and they all mesh together seamlessly, making a safety net for Dekkar’s ever-falling, sweetly sad vocals.
The last two tracks, “Passenger Song” and “I Became Awake”, sound most like prior Great Lake Swimmers’ work, and they add a nice closure to the album. Dekkar has sung about being by himself for most of the album, and now here he is virtually alone. “Passenger Song” is as heartbreaking as “Moving Pictures, Silent Film” was, and it sounds like Dekkar is sitting alone in a huge room and maybe he doesn’t even know he’s being recorded. The slow, deliberate guitar work and melody make you hang on every word. It’s almost draining to listen to, it’s so good. “I Became Awake” has some banjo and pedal steel with the guitar, but he sounds as alone as ever until the refrain comes in and Dekkar croaks out a wordless scale and the others join in. It is as communal a moment as there is to be found here, and when they sing at the end “I was heavy, but now I am light”, it is a beautiful truth to close the album on.
Ongiara is a confidently made, achingly beautiful record. I’ve avoided comparisons to Iron and Wine all this time, because, frankly, this album is too good for that comparison. It stands on its own as a distinct and brilliant album and should admired not just as a great indie folk album, but as one of the great albums of 2007.
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