For the better part of three albums, Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekkar has build a musical world of ghostly isolation. Hell, he recorded the band’s debut record in an old silo. His voice is airy and quivering on its own, but Dekkar still soaks it in reverb whenever he can. And though his folk songs tend to trudge along, slow and threadbare, he never loses the listener. There is always the slightest flourish, or a subtle lift in his voice that carries us through these bittersweet dirges.
But Dekkar apparently knows he can’t live off quiet balladry forever. Ongiara , the band’s previous effort, was hushed but far more fleshed out than their previous efforts. It let us know that Great Lake Swimmers were, in fact, a band and not just Dekkar’s work alone. And now, on Lost Channels, Great Lake Swimmers the band have arrived with a newfound vitality, a full-blooded surging sound, and songs sharp with hooks and sweet with immediate melodies.
Right away, on "Palmistry," Dekkar and company step out into new territory. Over his voice and acoustic strumming, there’s steady drums and layers of echoing electric guitar. Organ groans in the background and a mandolin plunks along while everyone else glides. It’s roots rock or alt-country or folk rock or whatever you want to call it, but it’s also a sound Great Lake Swimmers haven’t given us before, and it’s alive with Dekkar’s gift for affecting details and the band’s fully realized ability to lay thick and intricate muscles over the aching bones of his songs.
And this new pulsing sound is no fluke on the opening track. The anxious shuffle of "Everything Is Moving So Fast" thrives on the threading interplay of guitars and high lonesome backing vocals that work well against the deep hum of Dekkar’s voice. "Pulling on a Line" is the most perfect combination of the band’s new sound with Dekkar’s old isolation. The verses rest on his layered vocals and guitar, but the chorus is downright outstanding. Dekkar sings a brilliant weaving melody while behind him guitar notes rise and fall in cascading riffs, and the bass drops spare notes like the first thick raindrops of a good storm. If the song weren’t so deep-in-the-bones melancholy, I’d call it the catchiest Great Lake Swimmers song to date.
And while the bulk of the album follows this new fleshed-out sound, Dekkar hasn’t forgotten about the ballads. "Stealing Tomorrow" is a hauntingly beautiful folk song. Barely there pedal steel floats around in the atmosphere of the song, giving an affecting size to the space around Dekkar as he sings broken lines like "I can’t be sober, and win you over." Strings swell and drone on "New Light," but he keeps the song tightened, delivering lines with hard stops and building tension within the quiet. Closer "Unison Fall Into Harmony" gives us a rare listen to a reverb-free Dekkar, and its a subtly confessional touch to the ending of the album. He lets us in close, and his voice doesn’t sound better or worse, just more exposed, more revealing.
But the slow songs work all the better on this record when surrounded by more upbeat tracks. When Dekkar slows things down, it feels like a choice and not a limitation. He and his band never missed with their first three albums, but they’ve made some necessary discoveries on this one. On Lost Channels, they have stumbled out of that dank silo and are now wandering bleary-eyed, soaked fully in the light of day. But hey, maybe getting lost was the best way to find what they were looking for.