Great Lake Swimmers: Lost Channels

Great Lake Swimmers make great music to listen to as you lie in the grass and fall asleep.

Great Lake Swimmers

Lost Channels

Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2009-03-31
UK Release Date: 2009-04-06

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.