“Stop, listen, and feel,” Tony Dekker, the main creative force behind Great Lake Swimmers, suggests on “There Is a Light,” one of ten tracks on Ongiara, the band’s third full-length. It just so happens that’s the best way to take in the band’s music. Not to get all Stephen Colbert, but this music is just as much felt as it is heard — a transfixing ambience to get lost in for a short while.
Dekker starts out the album lost in the contours of a lover’s body on “Your Rocky Spine.” Like the most striking Neutral Milk Hotel work, the song is frank in its physicality. It’s followed by “Backstage with the Modern Dancers,” a languid fever dream of a tale in which Dekker watches a dancer stretching as he tunes his guitar. As they both prepare for performance, her body and his instrument become one. When she leaves him to take the stage, Dekker can only sit there brainstorming “songs I can sing by myself.”
Dekker does himself somewhat of a disservice by placing these two songs right up front. Nothing else on the album matches them, but neither is any song on the album subpar. Times when the band adds to its sparse guitar and banjo base spark interest. Owen Pallett (a.k.a. Final Fantasy) provides a lush string arrangement to “Where in the World Are You.” Bob Egan of the band Blue Rodeo adds glowingly gorgeous slide guitar to “I Became Awake.” And the band’s own Erik Arnesen floats a nice electric-guitar solo into “Changing Colours.”
Tunes like “Catcher Song” and “Passenger Song” recall Leonard Cohen not only in their titles but also with their sounds. And like Cohen, Dekker seems to seek out the divine in the earthly. On “Where,” he sings this about someone (a lost love? God?): “I’ve been looking in churches/ I’ve been looking in bars/ Thought I saw you/ In the oncoming cars.” The album, which started with Dekker lost, ends with him experiencing a profound awakening. Whether that epiphany is romantic, religious, or something else is up to the listener.