The St. Lawrence River runs from the Atlantic Ocean into Lake Ontario. Over the years it has carried everything from cargo to typhoid in the holds of the ships that have sailed up river to inland destinations. As the great river completes its westward journey to the lake, travelers pass through a stretch known as the 1,000 Islands.
While some of these so called islands are no more than lumps of rock with a tree stuck on them, the region between Cornwall and Kingston Ontario on the Canadian side of the river and Oswego to Massena on the American, takes its name from the more than 1,000 islands that dot the river and Lake Ontario.
The area is now a major source of tourist revenue for towns on both sides of the border as they ferry countless tourists each summer on cruises through the numerous channels the islands have created merely by existing. Dotted throughout the system are occasional wonders like Boldt Castle, the never-completed testimony of industrialist George Boldt's love for his wife Louise. When Louise died before it was finished, George ordered all work stopped on the project and it lay abandoned for decades until the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority bought the property and turned it into a tourist attraction.
History, romance, and mystery are what attract people to the Thousand Islands by the bus load on a daily basis every summer, and it's those qualities that have been the inspiration for the southern Ontario based band Great Lake Swimmers' new CD on the Nettwerk Music Group label, Lost Channels.
However, don't expect many literal references to specifics like Boldt Castle or other geographical landmarks from the region, as this is a much more impressionistic venture than that. Recorded at various locations throughout the 1,000 Island region, the band has tried to capture the sense of wonder, romance, and mystery that the locale has evoked in people's mind for generations.
Great Lake Swimmers' sound is built around lead vocalist Tony Dekker. There's an almost ethereal quality to his voice that makes it ideally suited for these types of atmospheric creations. That's not to say his voice is thin or lacking in any way; rather it has an otherworldly quality, making it sound like he's been able to peek behind the curtains where the emotional truths of events are normally hidden.
Thankfully that's not just for show, as unlike other bands who strive for the profound and recite the prosaic, Dekker and company's material shows the presence of genuine empathy for the emotional context of a situation or location.
On first listen, Lost Channels is difficult to get a read on, as initially you can't help but be caught up by the flow of their music. Unlike most bands that always seem to be in a hurry to get to the end of their disc, this music seems content to carry you gently to its destination. Yet it's not just a matter of being washed away in a bunch of pretty sounds and bobbing along on the surface, as there's a definite undertow pulling you down into each individual song.
You may not realize what it is you're hearing on the first listen, but there's something about it that compels you to listen again and again; an insistent voice continually demanding your attention. Only then do you realize the distinct flavour that each song contains within what felt like a singular stream of music.
Like the St. Lawrence River itself, which flows ceaselessly from the Atlantic Ocean but still takes on different personalities dependant on where it's passing through, the various points of call that are the songs on Lost Channels have enough individuality to make them stand out from the whole and each other. Although they each share the common element of Dekker's unique voice and share some composition elements, content is their distinguishing feature.
The song that first stuck out for me was the fifth track, "She Comes To Me In Dreams," mainly because it was the first song on the disc that sounded at all typical of the folk rock genre the band is supposed to be part of. Strong guitars are accompanied by equally pulsating drums while pedal steel guitar and mandolin fill out the sound, like a cross between old Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers musically. It's on this track that you realize the strength of Dekker's voice, for instead of it being washed out by the music like those who contrive to have a mysterious voice, he comes through loud and clear without losing any of the qualities that make him unique.
It's almost as if, instead of its etherealness causing it to be drowned out by the music, it gives his voice a buoyancy that allows it to float across its surface. It's the same on each song, no matter whether he's accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and piano as on "River's Edge", or the full band is playing behind him.
With the music and the lyrics being closely knit, so that one is an extension of the other, it means we are drawn to listen to him by a desire to hear how he expresses what the music implies with his words. "I am in an uproar”, he sings in the opening lines of the tumultuous "She Comes To Me In Dreams", and the music is as well – a perfect reflection of the emotions expressed throughout the song.
Lost Channels was inspired by the mystery and beauty of the stretch of the St. Lawrence River known as the 1,000 Islands. While it may not be specifically about any of the islands in particular, it somehow manages to capture some of the depth of emotion that the area inspires in people.
Music that attempts to elicit emotional responses from its listeners through impressionistic means runs the real risk of being manipulative, sentimental, or clichéd. Tony Dekker and the rest of Great Lake Swimmers not only avoid those pitfalls, but have also broached new ground with their creation. The twelve songs listened to as a unit evoke an image of the river on its endless journey from the Atlantic into the heart of North America, while the individual songs enliven some of the specific emotions she has provoked in people's hearts and minds over the centuries.
There are occasions when being haunted is a good thing, and listening to Lost Channels is an example of how that is possible. It's not often that the spirit of something as vast and unpredictable as the St. Lawrence River is brought to life, but Great Lake Swimmers have managed to do just that with beauty and intelligence.