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Great Lake Swimmers Ongiara Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

Simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.

Sid Smith 2007

Now this is what I call an album of ambient music. No, I'm not talking some cerebral, remote-control synthi-droneathon but the acoustic and electric sounds rebounding against such terminally old-fashioned surfaces such as wood and glass.

The third album by Canda's Great Lake Swimmers – the vehicle for songwriter Tony Dekker – was recorded in the beautiful environment of the Aeolian Hall in London, Ontario. Revealingly, the examples of the peerless acoustics offered on the venue's own website include a Shostakovich piano piece and ''Your Rocky Spine'', the first track from Ongiara.

Site-specific recordings aren't a new fad for this outfit. Their first self-titled album (2003) was recorded in a grain silo, whilst Bodies And Minds (2005) was laid down in a church. The resulting sound from this venerable Ontario venue is crisp and clean but with plenty of warmth to it – especially when played at a bit of volume.

Whilst borrowing some trappings of country music, Bob Egan's pedal steel, Erik Arnesen's melancholic banjo and Serena Ryder's winsome backing vocals, evoke a landscape of unadorned beauty that’s about as far removed from the well-worn shtick associated with the hat acts and rhinestone starlets of that genre as it's possible to imagine. Sadcore, ambient folk, alt-pop, nu-country – call it what you will, there’s a magical presence on this record that defies categorisation.

With no sign any unnecessary preening throughout the 43 minutes which these ten songs occupy, in essence they’re gently mesmerising chamber pieces, performed in an articulate but utterly uncluttered fashion. There's no studio 'fairy dust', fade outs, or any artifice of that kind. ''Changing Colours'' has a honed poetic electric guitar solo by Arnesen that is as stirringly magnificent as it brief, whilst Egan's ascending pedal steel guitar echoes and embodies the lyric’s observation 'I was heavy, but now I am light' on ''I Became Awake''. Simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.

Hovering at the centre of it all, Dekker's woebegone voice with its combination of yearning fragility and breathless wonder, conjures an image of Neil Young and Paddy MacAloon's paths crossing on an otherwise deserted, windswept prairie. Quietly impressive.

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