Recorded in an abandoned grain silo in rural southern Ontario, the debut album from Canada’s Great Lake Swimmers evokes a feeling of wide open spaces and dark, back-country roads. Finally available here in the States on Misra Records, the disc was actually released last year in Canada and Europe, where it has garnered numerous accolades and given the band a loyal and constantly growing fan base.
Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tony Dekker (who essentially is Great Lake Swimmers) quietly intoxicates listeners with the effective combination of his lonely songs and minimalist production style, which gives Great Lake Swimmers it’s deliciously dark core. The organic recording environment of the silo, with it’s natural, ghostly echo and incidental sounds, further serves to make things feel as intimate as is worldly possible. The tracks whisper in your ear, and you get the feeling that it’s always night time in Dekker’s universe, where the business of the day has receded, and contemplative thoughts occupy the mind.
What Dekker so deftly accomplishes with Great Lake Swimmers is channeling his considerable influences into a music that is completely his own. Harvest-era >Neil Young is certainly a steady presence on the album’s 10 songs, as is Mark Kozelek’s more acoustic work and, to a lesser extent Nick Drake, whose influence is more one of atmosphere than style. Yet however huge these influences may be (and each of them is certainly significant enough on their own to artistically strangle a lesser musician or songwriter) it’s Dekker’s voice in the end that you recall when you run Great Lake Swimmers through your head.
Opening cut Moving Pictures, Silent Films sets the mood for the rest of the album, which rarely deviates from its initial blueprint. Gently plucked acoustic guitars, awash in echo, weave majestically with delicate, minimalist piano runs and a bass that’s just barely there. Dekker adds a lovely vocal melody sung in his warbly, warm tenor voice and an impossibly catchy chorus and the effect is complete. It’s the aural equivalent of the thousand yard stare. While the rest of the album adds some lap steel, accordion, and drums here and there, it’s this basic instrumentation, modest and unfussy, that is the foundation of Great Lake Swimmers.
While there may not be much variation from track to track, it still works mainly because of Dekker’s strong writing and the overwhelming presence that the disc possesses. This is an album, not merely a collection of songs. I suggest that if you want the full experience, it should be listened to uninterrupted, from start to finish. The overall feel of Great Lake Swimmers reminds me a lot of R.E.M.’s Murmur in the way that it evokes a feeling of the past without being too time or place specific. It’s like watching an old black and white silent film, where your imagination can add a lot to the story, depending on where your mind wants to take it.
Great Lake Swimmers gives voice to that late-summer feeling of melancholy that we all can tap into and relate with. With the US release of their sophomore album Bodies and Minds due in late August (when else?), you should have enough soundtrack to enjoy a beautifully bittersweet summer for the whole year. Seasons be damned.