From the very first banjo strokes, Ongiara (Nettwerk) invites comparisons to some of the big names of indie folk: Neil Young, Iron & Wine, Nick Drake, and Sufjan Stevens. While this could be considered a somewhat stifling group to work in (who’s going to want to try to compete with Neil Young??), the Great Lake Swimmers perform admirably, and manage to present a sound that is distinctly their own. The third album from the Ontario-based band is in no way a departure from their previous two albums, but rather works on developing their sound, to varying degrees of success.
The opening track, “Your Rocky Spine” clearly shines as the winner of the album. The lyrics present a spirited love song that could be read dually as devoted to Canada’s famed landscape, or as the exploration of a lover’s body. Along with “Put There By The Land”, this song serves to present the environmental leanings of the group, and to their credit, the crunchiness doesn’t make you want to vomit. Still, only Canada could produce something like green indie folk.
Tony Dekker’s voice has the kind of softness and vulnerability that lends itself to what has been described as “ambient folk.” But on this particular album, Serena Ryder and Sarah Harmer add background vocals…particularly on the choruses. At times, it works well. At others, it falls just short of the Indigo Girls headlining the Lilith Fair. Perhaps it is an attempt to step up the game from the previous two albums…especially since there are other guest appearances from the likes of Bob Egan of Blue Rodeo (pedal steel and dobro) and Owen Pallett of The Arcade Fire (string arrangements)…but sometimes Ongiara sounds like there are too many cooks spoiling the broth; especially given Dekker’s talent.
Lyrically, Decker has just as many ups and downs as the album. Where “Your Rocky Spine”, “Changing Colours”, and “I Become Awake” have some great lines, “Backstage With The Modern Dancers” and “I Am Part Of A Large Family” are clunky in places. In the case of the latter song, it’s all a shame because the stanzas far outshine the chorus. Then there’s “Put There By the Land”, which has six lines. I don’t even know if it’s actually legal to say you wrote the words to a song when it’s only six lines. Liner note readers will also enjoy the added bonus of Decker’s homonyms in the songs, like singing “piece” instead of “peace.” And all that time I had been singing it wrong!
Named after the Harbor boat that took the band to their initial recording sessions on a Toronto Island (for their first album), Ongiara seems to signify the band trying to arrive on the scene. Many of the songs have a poppy, down-to-earth melody that recalls days relaxing on the porch out in the country, which should go a long way to making their efforts at converting fans worthwhile. Some of the extra adornments may come off as a little too much, but it will just come down to matters of personal taste in folk. Much like a boat ride, their trip might be a little rocky at times, but they’ll probably make it there in one peace (that’s for you, Tony). - Eric Silver