Every year there's at least one album that materializes before us. It creeps in slowly, showing no signs of where it came from or how it got here, but somehow it slips into our consciousness and means everything. In 2007, that album hails from Canada's indie-folk outfit Great Lake Swimmers. To say they came from nowhere may be a stretch. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Tony Dekker has led GLS through two previous highly-acclaimed albums, but when 2007's Ongiara (Nettwerk) fell in this writer's lap, I had never heard of this delicate, haunting band.
It takes less than one minute, as the banjo opens "Your Rocky Spine" and Dekker's lush vocals drop elegantly into full-band orchestration, to know you've stumbled onto something truly original and unflinchingly emotional. As Dekker sings, "I was lost in the lakes/ And the shapes that your body makes," the picture is crystal clear - we are in the world of Great Lake Swimmers.
These ten largely acoustic tracks are impossibly beautiful, sparse and impeccably crafted by true masters. It's the perfect balance of rich instrumentation (including glockenspiel, timpani, autoharp, pedal steel, dobro and lots of strings in addition to the more traditional fare) and brilliant, understated lyrics. There's an inherent duality in these compositions, the musical backdrops often creating a sense of longing but the lyrical content pulling us into an inclusive world of acceptance.
On "I Am Part Of A Large Family," Dekker (along with floating backup harmony by Serena Ryder) sings:
Why are we fighting
Kicking and screaming
Scratching and biting
Keeping it going
Wherever we're going
Generations are generations
And what I am supposed to do
But take good care
Good care of you
We have a lot of work to do
Me and you, and you and you
I am part of large family and that's enough for me
Beyond the tangible aspects of instruments and structure that make Ongiara such an amazing album there's Dekker's voice. Laced with subtle reverb courtesy of London, Ontario's Aeolian Hall, it's his hushed, full-bodied intonation that takes this from a great album to one of the best in the roots-folk, alt-country genre.
If you care for Iron & Wine or take My Morning Jacket's ballads to heart, Ongiara is a must have. Like all of the best music, it has changed a small part of me, allowed me to feel more, see more and made me better for the time spent listening. As we compile "Best Of 2007" lists, it's Ongiara that has stolen the top slot on my sheet - a truly remarkable accomplishment for a band I had never heard of a few months ago.
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