Friday, January 20, 2012
Great Lake Swimmers: Lost Channels (2009)
The attractive thing about Great Lake Swimmers has always been the absence of excessive formal "framing" to their work -- no context was ever needed, it was as simple as diving in and enjoying a strong sense of melody and atmosphere that didn't seem to suffer from unearned pretension. They're part of a folk rock class of thousands, for sure, but they've stood out because Tony Dekker's writing, arrangements, and vocals always seemed to operate with no need for adornment.
Of course, there are drawbacks; it's rare that such a relatively low-lying band carves out a sound quite so singular -- similar as Dekker's work may be in a superficial way to Justin Vernon's or Sam Beam's, you always know when you're listening to him -- and when all a musician wants to do is craft a motif and operate within it, the results can grow repetitive after a while (see: Depeche Mode, much as I love them). It doesn't matter how good the mandolin and banjo and guitar sound or how successful the music is at evoking a driving, fiery version of Appalachia wherein you can hear the mountains and feel like you're reading a Foxfire book; when you buy an album and feel like you've bought it before, that stings. Dekker is a good writer and capable of greatness; that might sound lofty, but I'd point you to "Moving, Shaking," "The Animals of the World," and "Your Rocky Spine" as works of otherworldly faux-backwoods pop genius. The problem is he isn't good or prolific enough to really establish a canon in the fashion he seems to be trying to, if his last couple of projects are a fair indication. The melodies have wisps of strength and power, but just not enough to justify a flatness of style that's continually, and unfairly, sent Great Lake Swimmers to the back of the room.
Let me be clear about this. I'd prefer a dozen albums that sound exactly like Ongiara to Great Lake Swimmers toning down their ragged edges and throwing out a Kiss Each Other Clean, but a sound so immediate as theirs deserves to be nurtured and explored rather than spun around into something ever more insular and preoccupied with a sense of rather limited expression. The songs of Lost Channels, a record I more or less dodged until this past week, are good ones, but in the grand scheme of Great Lake Swimmers, it's just too much of the same thing.
The frustration in that is that the thing is quite pleasant to listen to, and there are touches of winning sweetness and pop muscle here and there; opener "Palmistry" belies its log cabin atmosphere with a wonderfully folksy but intense chorus. The vocals throughout the record are, as always, impeccable, but Dekker's impulses seem to be at war -- the classicist GLS verses of "Pulling on a Line" seem to be almost artificially yanking themselves apart from the distinctive, modernist chorus -- as if the band's losing its trademark, their subservience to atmosphere, and resisting it. (Their next record, out in April, was recorded in a conventional studio, which suggests that this isn't just a feeling.) Oddly enough, some of the most memorable Lost Channels cuts are the florid ones: "New Light," with its violin and flute and full-fledged choral sound, sounds like some lost Christmas song; "River's Edge" is almost a hymn, working Dekker through one of his best melodies to date, but its delicate gospel sound is so self-consciously pretty it begins to grate after the halfway point, in the manner of Fleet Foxes.
It's not really a valid compliment or complaint to talk about this record being gorgeous and suggestive; it's easy for Great Lake Swimmers to make transportive music. That's what they do, and it's neither here nor there as a feature of their work at this point. It's become such a defining factor of Dekker's work that it now verges on empty mooniness; "Everything Is Moving So Fast" is so painfully on the nose lyrically and musically it recalls Contemporary Christian titans Jars of Clay. I don't necessarily mind Dekker reaching for a pop audience, something I'd imagine he's perfectly capable of, but the gross adult contemporary sheen on "Stealing Tomorrow" is too much, and while the FM country sound on "She Comes to Me in Dreams" isn't so disagreeable with its ringing steel guitar, it's horribly mismatched with Dekker's "this is a convergennnnnnce" vocal -- perhaps some lovely voices just weren't made for the radio?
Anyway, if easy-listening aspirations have overtaken indie rock already, why not bluegrass-tinged folk rock too? Wedding banjo music isn't the worst concept, really, but after "The Chorus in the Underground" it's sort of a relief to get the nice and loud Neutral Milk Hotel ripoff "Still," even if that showcases Dekker at his most simplistic.
Great Lake Swimmers have always seemed to be an evolving concept, for Dekker as well as his revolving door of bandmates; it's a pity that as the years go by he only seems to be growing more confused. That said, there's still something about this music that's fascinating and audibly passionate. Perhaps the new record this spring will find Dekker newly refocused. If he can play to the best of the abilities displayed here and on the other LPs for a consistent forty minutes or so, it'll be something really special.