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Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara

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Artist: Great Lake Swimmers

Album: Ongiara

Label: Nettwerk

Review date: Apr. 20, 2007

In the past, Great Lake Swimmers have drawn comparisons with Iron and Wine, Nick Drake, America and Neil Young, but on this, their third album, it’s difficult to see past Neil Young. Main man Tony Dekker’s voice has exactly the plaintive yearning quality that made After The Goldrush irresistible to many – close your eyes and it could be 1970 all over again. (Hey, there’s even an unpopular war rumbling away in the distance…)

But… there’s no “Southern Man” here; Great Lake Swimmers do not rock out. The closest they come – and it’s not very close - is the guitar break at the end of “Changing Colours.” Instead, they prefer to stick to the borders between folk, country and soft rock, the territory once called “wooden music” and now, less flatteringly, included in “dad rock,” the territory long ago staked out by CSN&Y and pre-Walsh Eagles. In addition to Dekker’s voice and guitar, key ingredients of the sound are banjo, occasional dobro and pedal steel, sweet vocal harmonies plus string arrangements by Owen Pallett of the Arcade Fire. Add a natural reverb - achieved by recording in the Aurelian Hall in London, Ontario - and it is hard to fault the sound, which manages a fine balance between intimacy and grandeur.

The songs, all finely crafted by Dekker, are melodic, distinctive and sing-along material. Without overstating the case, there is a loose concept to the album, the subject matter ambiguously blurring the distinction between personal and environmental issues. So, the opening track, “Your Rocky Spine,” is addressed as if to a partner/lover about their body but is really a paean to the beauty of Dekker’s native Canada. “Changing Colours” achieves the same ambiguity, this time about the changes to the landscape in autumn. Taken together, all the songs radiate positivism, without preaching or carrying overt “messages.” A neat trick to pull off.

A gripe previously voiced about Great Lake Swimmers is that despite sounding beautiful they lacked substance. This time around, that charge won’t stick. Yes, the music is sublime, but there is far more to it than that.

By John Eyles

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