Great Lakes is a former member of the quote-unquote Elephant Six Collective, a sort of quasi-musical hippie commune that shut its doors in 2002. The collective’s bands are widely regarded as sounding almost uncomfortably similar to one another: softly psychedelic as if they’ve been smoking hash and listening to a lot of early Bee Gees and middle-period Kinks and late Zombies (which, presumably, they have).
Indeed, the credits for Diamond Times, Great Lakes’ third album, are sort of a post-Elephant Six who’s who, with main songwriters Dan Donahue and Ben Crum augmented by a host of current and former members of the Ladybug Transistor, Of Montreal, the Essex Green, et al. But album opener “The Pinks and Purples” kicks off with a pulsating, analog synthesizer creepily like the one featured so prominently on Brian Eno’s Another Green World — i.e., nothing like middle-period Kinks. The synth is the only thing you hear for a good fifty seconds, a disconcertingly long time to have only synth. When a soprano saxophone flutters in, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d clicked on the wrong album.
Rest assured: Around the one-minute mark, a jingle-jangly guitar and drums rescue “The Pinks and Purples” and reel it back into well-worn Elephant Six territory. The singing and music on the balance of the song is familiar and cozy (I’m not sure if Donahue or Crum is singing, but whoever it is sounds like David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven/Cracker or Colin Meloy of the Decemberists) and you could drive a Volkswagen Microbus through the hook, it’s so huge. I’m reminded of “Duck Pond,” a strangely moving song by another Elephant Six band, the similarly named and not altogether different-sounding (but different) the Sixth Great Lake, which — and it’s not really worth getting into — is and isn’t the same as yet another Elephant Six outfit, the Essex Green.
Actually, if Diamond Times has a musical soul mate, it is unquestionably the Essex Green’s Cannibal Sea (Merge, 2006), on which said Essex Green’s sound developed remarkably from amateur-hour Kinks into soaring pop songs. The maturation evident on Diamond Times isn’t as head-spinning, but it’s apparent. On 2002’s The Distance Between, Great Lakes comes off as amateur-hour Zombies (there’s a cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” for good measure), but Diamond Times is clearly the work of a confident, astute pop group: softly psychedelic in the expected way, but with pleasant detours into languid cosmic country (“The Moon and Lunatics” and “Eagle and Swan”; I’m picking up on a definite X and Y motif here) and power pop. The pop songs in particular are where Great Lakes excels; the zooming “Farther,” bar-rocking “Hot Cosmos” and darker, hooky “Horses Wings” jump out of the speakers as representative of the full realization of Great Lakes’ sound. And there isn’t much drop off; the balance of the songs could fit comfortably on any post-Elephant Six album, except maybe the aforementioned, relatively masterful Cannibal Sea.
I’m not suggesting you should throw out your copies of Something Else and Odyssey and Oracle. But albums like Cannibal Sea and Diamond Times are compelling proof that the old Elephant Six roster is increasingly coming into its own, albeit sort of communally. Presumably, they wouldn’t have it any other way.