The Wooden Sky are a band that is all about experimentation and expanding their sonic horizons. From the undulating, reserved folk-rock of When Lost at Sea to the retro soul of Every Child a Daughter and the raw roots performances that act as the focal point of Let’s Be Ready, they’ve never been a group to simply sit in one place and settle for long. In a way, they’ve always been swimming ever closer towards stranger waters since their debut release a decade back. Their aptly-titled latest release, however, is their greatest culmination of years of asserting their prowess as musicians alongside their natural lust for artistic adventure.
Thematically, the band has arguably aimed for greater heights on Swimming in Strange Waters. The album is teeming with political and personal undertones that never feel too tacked or missing the point as such candid tracks often can. The rollicking ‘70s-tinged rock ‘n’ roll of the album’s title track, for instance, hides a dark tale of a family torn apart beneath its deceptively anthemic composure. Elsewhere, the band tucks away another delectable acoustic number like they quite haven’t since their debut on “Born to Die”. Its tender harmonies and stripped production might hint at more complexities shaded underneath its initial makeup, and really listening to the sweet-sounding folk song will reveal a conscious reflection on every living being’s ultimate fate.
In other places, the band soars with searing instrumentation like they never have before. This is perhaps most obvious on the blaring “Deadhorse Creek”. It’s a swamp stomper that gradually builds into a raw, ambitious instrumental break complete with guitar, keys, drums, bass, dobro, and harmonica in true jam band fashion. The band displays their politics best on “Black Gold”, focusing on the Keystone XL and oil pipelines of the same ilk like the DAPL. They set the incredible instrumental prowess seen on tracks like the aforementioned “Deadhorse Creek” aside to instead paint a hushed, driving soundscape for centralized vocals to tell the story of oil contaminating water supplies. They portray a very real worry regarding these pipelines that activists have been making known in their protest for the past several years in scintillating, bluesy fashion that one would hope would get more ears perked up.
Their politics show a little more on “Life is Pain, Pain is Beauty”, where they implore their audience to “look around” and see humanity. The song drives into a high-flying bridge complete with an on-edge string portion that brings their intent to become more revered as a raw roots rock band front-and-center before cooling down for a slick baseline to top things off. Speaking of bass, that’s exactly what the balladry of “Riding on the Wind” begins with to, and strings are a particularly foreboding focal point that, together with a reflective piano, really bring album closer “Glory Hallelujah” to more atmospheric heights.
Swimming in Strange Waters is, by far, the Wooden Sky’s most ambitious album to date. This is so regardless of whether we are focusing on a lyrical, vocal, or quite clearly instrumental standpoint when saying this. For fans of the band, they’ll find more here to bask in all at once than perhaps any of the band’s first records upon first listen, and for those just being introduced to them, this is a great spot to jump in. They’ve made a conscious effort to leave their mark with this one and they’ve succeeded.