A failed attempt to breathe new life
Orchestras and classical music as a whole are wonderful tools in a songwriter’s arsenal if used correctly. Too often, they are thrown as a shortcut towards emotion rather than accentuating something else; look at “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” and tons of overwrought ballads that bring in a full strings section and choir yet are too thinly written to earn it. It can get exhausting to suffer through dramatic pianos or over-the-top crescendos on song after song, which was a problem for Weezer when they decided to get classical on Ok Human. Their most useful attributes are interesting textures and sounds to create a richer, more interesting soundscape or to crank up the melodrama and power to another level. Tony Dekker, frontman of the long-running folk band Great Lake Swimmers, got into this style because he was tired of “the sound of the standard acoustic guitar and typical folk-rock lineup.” While The Waves, The Wake is one of the band’s most interesting to date, the compositions are draining yet flat, and Dekker’s vocals leave much to be desired with their robotic, dead-eyed lack of passion.
Great Lake Swimmer’s previous record, A Forest of Arms, was their most electric and hi-fi to date, with decent rock songs like “I Must Have Someone Else’s Blues” and “One More Charge at the Red Cape.” It’s not surprising that Dekker would follow this up with something more pensive and low-key, as guitars of any kind are scarce, and the production is dominated by pianos, marimbas, strings and other forms of classical instrumentation. Everything sounds nice and ethereal, and there’s no overwrought presentation or anything too sappy or saccharine in the execution. The harp-dominated “Falling Apart,” the layers of woodwinds on “The Talking Wind” and the playful marimbas against a ticking lute on “Unmaking The Bed” are among the prettiest and most interesting compositions.
The most novel track on the record is easy “Visions Of A Different World,” an acapella track in which the only melody comes from Dekker’s own backing vocals. It’s a bold and successful experiment, yet it’s one of the only moments where Dekker’s vocals work. For a band that writes about nature so much, it’s odd that he and his producer added so much reverb to his already disaffected singing to create something so flat and uninviting. When the instrumentation gets more ethereal like on “Falling Apart,” it almost works, and “Mouth Of Flames” actually gets him to convey a convincing emotion of fear against an atmospheric mix of double bass and knotted acoustic guitar. On the whole, though, he’s easily the weakest part of any song, and the multi-tracking and layering on “Side Effects” and “Holding Nothing Back” only make him sound more robotic somehow.
Then again, “Side Effects” has enough problems of its own as he sings the title over and over again. Even though Dekker wanted to use this new instrumentation for breathing life into his songwriting, the compositions and songs are flat and repetitive. The closing song, “The Open Sea,” has some decent swell with its acoustic guitar melody swerving up and down the scale, but other songs like “In A Certain Light” drag their feet and repeat themselves over and over in the final minute without any build. It’s pretty, but everything goes in one ear and out the other with no hooks or crescendos, and any amount of new changes will not fix the vocals either.
Tony and his band fall into the same trap that a lot of other acts do when it comes to orchestral instrumentation, even outside of folk music. It’s nice to have them, but they can’t be dropped into an album as the only selling point. They have to complimented by songwriting or spark new creativity, neither of which happens with The Waves, The Wake.