REVIEW: Great Lake Swimmers - New Wild Everywhere

Great Lake Swimmers' singer/songwriter Tony Dekker has grown increasingly confident over the course of his career, and that confidence shines through in New Wild Everywhere, the best in the band's catalog to date.  There is scarcely a note out of place, a passage that doesn't work, or an instrument that sounds unnecessary. Dekker's own words in the song "Changes With the Wind" describe the record best: "All the notes played with discipline / Hanging in tune, and rising as they fall."

"Hanging in tune" is exactly what this music does. Guitars, accordions, banjos, and other staples of acoustic music dominate, but other instruments such as flugelhorns and euphoniums playfully pop up throughout. These unorthodox instruments stay quietly in the background, but emerge just enough to peak the listeners interest and add another level of beauty to Dekker's songs. And through them all, Miranda Mulholland's violin flutters around the music like a spring butterfly, weaving in and out of Dekker's melodies. Mulholland also harmonizes perfectly with Dekker on many songs, most notably "Cornflower Blue," a country waltz that also utilizes Erik Arnesen's skills on the banjo.

All but one song on New Wild Everywhere was recorded in a studio in the band's native Toronto, a major departure for a band that has recorded in abandoned grain silos, churches, and castles. The higher quality production values provided by the studio suit them. Dekker often tailored the album's song selections to the surroundings in which they were recorded, and freeing himself from that obligation has helped his song craft. The echoing, ethereal feel of their earlier records is abandoned and replaced with lush, full instrumentation that gives New Wild Everywhere a more polished sound, yet a looser feel. Not that the band should give up on recording in unorthodox locations - "The Great Exhale," perhaps the most breathtaking (pun intended) song on New Wild Everywhere, was recorded in an abandoned Toronto subway station.

Dekker's lyrics have always embraced the strength of the natural world. On New Wild Everywhere, physical and emotional worlds are presented with a new fragility - things can fall apart. But even though the lyrics may be melancholy, the music often isn't, resulting in a dichotomy that works wonderfully. While critics often compare GLS to Will Oldham and his aliases, Dekker himself has cited Hank Williams as an influence – perhaps the master of matching sad lyrics to a cheerful tune. That influence, while de-honkytonked, is evident here. "Think That You Might Be Wrong," the bluesy leadoff track, is dedicated to New Orleans. Dekker doesn't make direct Katrina references, but he doesn't have to - the sadness in the words conjures the images for you. "Ballad of a Fisherman's Wife," about the BP oil spill's effect on the Gulf of Mexico, features Arnesen's banjo and Mulholland's violin driving an upbeat song that belie Dekker's angry lyrics ("The papers say this knocked us on our knees / But we were already on our knees"). "The Knife" may be the bitterest song Dekker has yet recorded. He addresses the lover that spurned him by talking more than singing and the anger is palpable.

While slower songs carry the majority of the record, it's when GLS turns up the tempo that New Wild Everywhere truly shines. On their previous record, 2009's Lost Channels, GLS proved they could bounce from folk to rock with little difficulty, and they do so once again here with even more admirable results. The title track jumps out of the gate and builds in energy as it goes, even incorporating a rare electric guitar solo. The peppier songs are as different in musicality from the slower songs as they are in tone - rather than things falling apart, Dekker sings about a world in bloom, skies exploding, and rocks that "jump and jitter." "Easy Come Easy Go," the album's first single, is perhaps the closest they've come to a pop song, but it's a fine one, a toe-tapping stomp that wouldn't be out of place - musically or lyrically - in your local dive bar.

GLS has gone through several lineup changes since its inception; former members Sandro Perri and Colin Huebert are now with the band Siskiyou (as is Arnesen when he’s not playing with GLS), and former keyboardist Julie Fader is a talented singer/songwriter in her own right. It’s a testament to Dekker’s high standards that his band members seem to move on to other successful projects. But the lineup he has assembled here seems to have struck gold. If they can continue create music like New Wild Everywhere, let's hope Dekker can keep it together for more than just this one amazing record.