At their best, Lake bring to mind the mellowest of Belle & Sebastian songs. At their worst, they make a quiet Belle & Sebastian sound like Hüsker Dü.
There is darkness embedded in the impossibly long days of summer. The season incessantly reminds you of its fleetingness. On their latest album, Olympia, Washington’s Lake have created a backward-looking Autumn record, overflowing with the understated happiness of a relaxing summer Saturday, covered with the nondescript shadows of knowing that when the summer goes, it will be a long time until the sun’s warmth can be felt again. Even the title, Let’s Build a Roof implies, at once, freewheeling impulse and cold necessity.
“Breathing”, which opens the album, sounds how late summer feels, with rainy day reverb shrouding the calming clarity of an August afternoon. Even without this studio chicanery, the song would be wholly ethereal with its sporadic bass, heartbeat drums, and ghostly harmonies. Like a summer day in Washington, when leisure is only ever ephemeral with the threat of rain, something almost subliminally sinister lurks beneath the music, stifling the stoner’s serenity for a more alcoholic anxiety.
But this anxiety never pushes the music forward. Lake never quite lift their heads from the grass long enough to create a truly exciting moment. At their best, Lake bring to mind the mellowest of Belle & Sebastian songs. At their worst, they make a quiet Belle & Sebastian sound like Hüsker Dü. It is a fine line between gentle and boring. Lake never fail to walk this line, stumbling over to either side of it at random, making Let’s Build a Roof largely inconsistent.
The mixing of organic and synthetic sounds on “Gravel”, with marimbas competing for their superiority against inhuman-sounding keyboards, creates an intricately full sound, but the group’s performance hardly gathers any energy. “My bottom half is moving but my top is holding still”, Lindsay Schief, one of many singers in the band, says, unconsciously addressing the song’s own inconsistencies. “Madagascar”, the first single, is blue-eyed soul funk, with a sound surprisingly, and interestingly, influenced as much by Hall & Oates as Broken Social Scene: regimented, restrained, note-perfect, but also entirely devoid of emotion. “And I wanna give up”, the chorus goes, and the music is so casual with its indolence, the song sounds like it could give up at any moment.
Still, Lake hint at their skill as an ensemble. The weak moments are balanced by a loose, brief song cycle resting in the middle of the album. Comprised of three compositions about nature’s mutability, this narrative pushes Let’s Build a Roof forward. “Acorn”, the most sonically simplistic song on the album, with an almost over-powering bass and organ creating a distant, reflective sound, talks of the inevitable transition from summer to autumn: “Everything’s moving, everything’s changing, the acorn falls down”. The fear of this change is addressed in the next song, “The Roof Caves In”. Its massive chorus of singers harmonize somewhere between the Beach Boys and Animal Collective, singing of the simple, terrifying image, “At home as the roof caves in”. Indeed, the song seems to analyze the group’s stubborn stagnation as a band. Lake sound as if they would continue playing as the house burned down around them, not because they are so invested in the music, but because they just don’t feel like moving. Lake sometimes claim ownership of their lethargy, but too often, they let it overcome them.
Finally, this stagnation is cut off, briefly, by “Loose Wind”. “The loose wind blows me into the night”, Eli Moore sings, and the song, which is still lazy, but contains the group’s most captivating melody, drifts along with the peacefulness of a cool breeze. Yet, as the lyric implies, the song, like many of the songs here, lacks authority -- it is, after all, the wind that must move the group into the realm of a memorable melody. This song cycle forces the record upwards, but like Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill, the music stumbles down again with a harsh denouement and entirely forgettable ending. In the background, as a casual listen, Let’s Build a Roof could keep time as you swing from a tree in a hammock, but with the thin veil of reflective comfort lifted, as the summer sun gives way to the sobriety of a closer listen, Lake merely leave their listeners out in the cold, with no shelter protecting them.