Great Lake Swimmers
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2008, Volume 15, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue February 26, 2008, 07:30 AM CST
Last summer’s dissolution of The Be Good Tanyas left a gaping void in the Canadian indie-folk scene. Fortunately, the Ontario outfit Great Lake Swimmers goes a long way toward filling it with Ongiara, its third outing for Nettwerk. With this set, singer/songwriter Tony Dekker and his pals Erik Arneson, Colin Huebert, and Julie Fader have created one of the most immediately likeable and approachable albums of roots music to be issued in the past year.
Through a combination of simple instrumentation, haunting melodies, and yearning vocals, Great Lake Swimmers evokes the spaciousness and mystery of Canadian soul as projected through its landscape. Inspired by the same lights and hues that, 40 years ago, gave dimension to The Band’s ramshackle work, Great Lake Swimmers’ music immediately communicates a warm familiarity. Although his songs travel through similar emotional territory, Dekker tempers Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko’s hobo chic by singing with a bravado that is a little less overt than his predecessors. There is no dirt nor are there farmers’ calluses in his material. The melodies on Ongiara are often paper thin, and they are, at times, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing carried on the wind.
Ongiara was the original name that the Iroquois gave to Niagara Falls, and the influence of the vastness of the eastern Canadian landscape can be heard throughout the endeavor. Recorded in November 2006 at the Aeolian Hall in London, Ontario the warm reverberation of the vocals and the instrumentation sometimes recalls the ambience that the Cowboy Junkies captured when it recorded The Trinity Session, its breakthrough, in an old, Toronto church. Like the Cowboy Junkies, Great Lake Swimmers wraps itself in a cocoon of sound that seems to insulate the outfit from the emotional implications of the songs it delivers. Taking on the world’s big questions, Dekker emerges like a young and vulnerable Leonard Cohen. Without the ancient crucifixes and saints to shield him, he paints a picture of a world that is mysterious and sad, one where all love — it seems — is unrequited.
Ongiara works best when it is heard as a whole. The songs move seamlessly from one to another as sparse banjo lines play off the guitar melodies, thereby creating a kind of cinematic minimalism that often evokes the work of fellow Canadians Daniel Lanois and Bruce Cockburn. Dekker’s voice fits his subject matter perfectly, too, though listeners will wish, at times, that he sounded a little less resigned to the universe. Nevertheless, his singing projects a sense of warmth and intimacy that is very appealing. Standout tracks include Your Rocky Spine, I Became Awake, and the majestic Where in the World Are You. The latter cut’s gorgeous melody and suggestive lyrics conjure images of geese alighting on a lake at dawn. The only clunker on the endeavor is the overly sincere I Am Part of a Large Family. Its politically correct, greeting-card homilies mar what otherwise is a fine composition.
Ongiara is a wonderful album that fans of North American folk-rock should enjoy immensely. Great Lake Swimmers is well on its way to refining its own style. If the group’s next outing continues to build upon the groundwork that was laid with this release, Great Lake Swimmers will give fellow Canadian indie darlings The Arcade Fire a run for its money at capturing the hearts and minds of music fans on both sides of the border. Great Lake Swimmers is, without a doubt, a band to watch. ½
Ongiara is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box