“Survival is the ability to swim in strange water,”
— Frank Herbert, Dune
With four previous albums of stellar indie rock, Toronto’s The Wooden Sky have spent the last ten years carving out a place amongst the best guitar bands. Their ability to weave deep, intelligent lyrics into immediate, energetic rock songs sets them apart from the hordes, as does the pervading compassion that comes through in their records. Each has imparted a sense of compulsion in one way or another, as though the music is an attempt at communicating something otherwise un-sayable. Speaking to NPR, lead Gavin Gardiner described himself as an artist who “feel[s] the weight of responsibility to act and make things better for the people to come,” so such a vibe is perhaps unsurprising, and nowhere is this motivation clearer that their newest release, Swimming in Strange Waters.
The title track kicks off the album, a seemingly freewheeling whirl of psychedelica that’s as frantic as it is unpredictable, threatening to veer off course in carefree abandon. However, beneath this is a striking exploration of sexual abuse and the implications it has moving forwards, the ripples of anger and fear through subsequent generations. Written from the perspective of the relative of a victim, and addressing the perpetrator of the abuse, the once carefree abandon is revealed as something else entirely. It’s fuelled by a sense of resentment so keen it induces an unhinged, dangerous edge, the song’s runaway energy a reaction to the powerlessness faced when a loved one is harmed.
“By the time that we got there
It was already too late
They say death had come easy
I didn’t see it that way
I guess they meant you’d stopped breathing
Left behind all that pain
But I barely remember
See my life was on stage”
‘Life is Pain, Pain is Beauty’ sees Gardiner’s vocals twirl and sway as the track gathers in intensity, eventually descending into a spiral of The National-style hammered drums and squealing strings, while ‘You’re Not Alone’ is one of the album’s more reserved tracks, the music like a sunny summer lull, vocals delivered with such a steely-eyed sense of love that when Gardiner sings “Life is long and love is strange / with any luck our luck could change,” you can’t help but believe him.
‘Deadhorse Creek’ throws some raucous and bluesy barroom country into the mix, the steady bumping drumbeat and drunken squeal of harmonica giving Gardiner an opportunity to play the snake-hipped cowboy. There’s a joy in hearing his vocals yell and strain during the wordless chorus, before culminating in a little let’s-get-this-party-started “woo!”, the sort of goodtime gaiety that teeters on the edge of violence. The song just bugs out completely with around a minute to go, displaying all the manic mayhem of a runaway train, before the band get a hold of the reins again to steer it home.
‘Born to Die’ offers a welcome breather, a tender acoustic folk song that would sit comfortably on 2009’s If I Don’t Come Home You’ll Know I’m Gone, the calm before the storm of ‘Black Gold’, a great thumping beast of a thing that ascends without let up. Drawing inspiration from the Keystone XL pipeline protests, Gardiner again finds a duality between enthusiasm and fury, at once aghast and energised by injustice, pushed into a sort of reckless refusal to remain silent.
“Bomb the towns, burn the city
concrete gods are flashing lights
hear you’re wasted half the time
guess I wasted most of mine
seems a pity but the sun’s still shining bright
so heaven help for I feel I’m losing sight”
‘Riding on the Wind’ sees The Wooden Sky fuse their usual reflective country rock with The War On Drugs-style dreamy psych pop, exploring the plight of refugee families Gardiner met at Romero House, before ‘Matter of Time’ opens in an almost Timber Timbre-esque noirish slink. The track is elegantly smooth in a way which sounds hopelessly lovesick, and things come to a head as Gardiner descends into desperate cries and Stetson-like sax paints Lynchian shadows across the outro. Final track ‘Glory Hallelujah’ sits amidst swelling strings and an anchoring piano line, the vocals careful and delicate compared to most of the other tracks, the graceful light at the end of the tunnel, proverbial and otherwise. “Singing glory, hallelujah, it gets easier,” Gardiner sings, “Well, I knew it couldn’t be so hard all the time.”
The Wooden Sky are making music with emotion, intelligence and integrity, songs in which you can both lose and find yourself, and perhaps even connect with the plight of others. We’re all trying to survive strange waters to some degree, and the record’s intent on illuminating this fact—both appreciating your constant kicking beneath the surface, and imploring you to help those that may be tiring, or entering even rougher seas.
Swimming in Strange Waters is out via Chelsea Records and Nevado Music, and you can buy it now.