On many of Neil Young’s softer folk or psychedelic numbers, like “Expecting to Fly,” “Winterlong,” or the entire Comes a Time record, the legendary singer/songwriter manages to use his atmospheric voice to convey mental images of the cold, isolated Canadian wilderness. To almost equally beautiful effect, Great Lake Swimmers’ mastermind and Toronto-native Tony Bekker captures many of the same images on the best moments of the folk quintet’s self-titled debut. Since this exceptional first official release was recorded in an abandoned silo in southern Ontario amidst the chirping of crickets, that’s not completely surprising.
While similarities to modern day singer/songwriters like Elliott Smith, Will Oldham, and Mark Kozelek are prevalent, the music on the disc has more in common with the classic Canadian folk music of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and even the Band (Basement Tapes era) and their rustic vision of northern frontier towns. Visions of clear river streams, forlorn people, and empty plains permeate Great Lake Swimmer’s disc like the most vivid moments in each of aforementioned Canadian’s catalog.
Kicking off with a Red House Painters via the Ontario marshland dream-folk number called “Motion Pictures, Silent Films,” and flowing into the harmonic waltz of “I Will Never See the Sun,” (the greatest song on the album), and culminating in the death-haunted symbolism of “Great Lake Swimmers,” the CD takes the listener on an odyessy through barren prairies and broken-down dreams. Mixed among those three songs are confessionals like “Moving, Shaking,” “The Animals of the World,” and “Three Days at Sea” that heighten the feelings of being lost in a desolate forest. Meanwhile, Tony Bekker’s lonely voice remains in tune with the prominent backing music of the twittering insects. The only weak moment on an otherwise exceptional introduction is the overlong “Merge, a Vision, a Harbor,” which tends to meander and get a bit too wordy.
Placing Tony Bekker and the Great Lake Swimmers in the same echelon as fellow Canadians such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Robbie Robertson is an obviously foolish and damning thing to do to a band this early in its career. However, judging from the Great Lake Swimmer’s remarkable debut, one only wonders what the future holds for the band later down the grassy plain.