Music

Great Lake Swimmers: Ongiara

Matthew Fiander

Tony Dekkar has hit his stride with Ongiara, using the right combination of elements from the band’s earlier work to craft not only their best, but one of the best of ‘07.


Great Lake Swimmers

Ongiara

Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2007-05-08
UK Release Date: 2007-04-11
Amazon
iTunes

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image