It’s funny the way things work out sometimes, especially for bands retroactively deemed “ahead of their time.”
Great Lake Swimmers released their full-length debut in 2003, effectively preceding the indie-folk, er, movement spearheaded by Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes three to five years later, depending on who you ask. When Tony Dekker’s pretty vocal harmonies first caught the ear of listeners bored with the classic/garage rock revival all those many, long years ago, his then-small group stood out from the alternative in-crowd for all the reasons that would pigeonhole their current, much larger incarnation in today’s musical climate; gently plucked acoustic guitar, grainy, lo-fi aesthetics and sensitive, introspective lyrics coming from a bearded banjo player wearing the uniform of a lumberjack. The pieces are all there.
While the Swimmers’ latest offering, A Forest of Arms, still brims with quiet rusticism and full-bodied crooning, something is definitely different; this record’s production is bright and crisp. Great Lake Swimmers’ standby room-centric recording aesthetic has departed from just that: the room, or, if the urban legend can be believed, the grain silo in which they recorded their self-titled album. What remains is the spirit of Americana that had always been hiding coyly behind the skirts of Dekker’s meticulously constructed frailty and atmospheric posturing. And in music, Americana sometimes means two things: panderous “working man” lyrics, pop structure, and lots of slide guitars.
A Forest of Arms is fucking loud. And not just relative to “quiet is the new loud.” All the string arrangements, layered vocals and auxiliary percussion might remind listeners of that one famous section of Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo.” The sparse “The Great Bear” is perhaps the only track that would sound even remotely at home on one of the Swimmers’ previous LPs, because it’s the only one in which they don’t attempt to fill the air with as many sounds and instruments as humanly possible. “Something like a Storm” continues the Swimmers’ tradition of opening with a jumpy halfway-to-bluegrass, and showcases the dramatic extent to which the Swimmers’ sense of sonic space has warped over the past few years. “Shaking all Over” exudes rambling outdoorsmanship with the urban touch of a Simon and Garfunkel tune thanks to the rich, loudly mixed drum kit. In my day all you’d get in a Great Lake Swimmers album was a tambourine. And you were thankful!
A specter is haunting folk rock – the specter of the steady quarter note bass drum. Mumford and Sons, Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and other such groups have taken this once innocuous musical convention to its (il)logical extreme in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped the Swimmers from trying to capture banal lightning in a bottle with “One More Charge at The Red Cape.” A tale of charging into a love affair despite the obvious warning signs with a glorious rising string section, it’s adorably optimistic (“You can shut it down but don’t stop dreaming”), until the song grants listeners a glimpse of its full meaning with its talk of blood, battlegrounds and violent spectacles. “A Jukebox In a Desert of Snow” works the same stompy angle, tempered with the jangle of an acoustic guitar and steady cello hits.
“I Was a Wayward Pastel Bay” sprouts upward from the fertile, shimmery soil of a grand piano. It’s around this moment that this album’s similarities to John Wesley Harding leap out all at once. The confident, swaggering stride coupled with the out-of-place colloquialisms of “I Must Have Someone Else’s Blues” is where the John Cougar Mellencamp-esque Americana shines the shiniest. There’s even a whistle section. Just look at all the fun they’re having! “With Every Departure” has thrusts of Hammond organ and groovy drums sounding like a blend of country western and what might be reggae for a regrettably short period. A banjo sits delicately front and center in the lilting, pastoral waltz that is “A Bird Flew Inside The House” and finally “Expecting You” raggedly reprises “Something Like a Storm.”
We’ve watched Dekker’s folk project metamorphose from acoustic caterpillar to baroque butterfly over the course of a decade, and it’s hard not to notice that the gradual shift from elegant to elaborate correlates with Great Lake Swimmers’ increasing amount of notoriety and, well, money. As the final notes of A Forest of Arms fade out, we’re left to ponder some unanswerable questions: Are the careers of Sam Beam, Conor Oberst, Kristian Matsson and the rest of Bob Dylan’s most devout followers fated to follow this path of sonic expansion, doomed to their own drawn-out electric controversy? Is the grandiose A Forest of Arms the kind of music Great Lake Swimmers always wanted to make, and would have made if they had the money, resources and access to dozens of stringed instruments back in 2003?