Personnel: Tony Dekker (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, ukulele); Erik Arnesen (electric guitar, banjo); Bret Higgins (mandolin, piano, Wurlitzer piano, upright bass, electric bass, claves); Miranda Mulholland (violin, background vocals); Joshua Van Tassell (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Howie Beck.
While he writes lovely melodies and has a fine voice, Tony Dekker of the Great Lake Swimmers often sounds dour enough that one could imagine he'd like to hide in a cave for a while. And for the group's sixth studio album, 2015's A Forest of Arms, Dekker did just that; his vocals and acoustic guitars were recorded in Ontario's Tyendinaga Caverns and Caves, one of the oldest natural caverns in Canada, while the rest of the instruments were tracked in a variety of studios, performance venues, and resonant rooms in unlikely locales. While it's difficult to say how much impact Tyendinaga made on the final product, it certainly testifies to the group's willingness to experiment. And in a band where mood plays a major role, doing your vocals in a cave probably does make a difference, and the cool but emotionally taut tone of A Forest of Arms' 12 tunes is genuinely powerful, as the wheatfield textures of Dekker's voice blend with the faraway cry of Miranda Mulholland's violin and the well-worn bark of Erik Arnesen's banjo and electric guitar. A Forest of Arms evokes the feeling of a Sunday afternoon in a rural community as the cool, decisive snap of autumn is in the air, at once beautiful and laced with sad inevitability, and though the Great Lake Swimmers don't clear out much new stylistic or thematic ground on this album, it's still a welcome reminder of what they do so well. (And "I Must Have Someone Else's Blues" shows Dekker does have a sense of humor.) From the lonesome drift of the melodies and the brilliantly rendered dynamics of the performances to the uncluttered detail of the production (by engineer Justin Shane Nace in collaboration with the group), this is a splendid mood piece that excels in concept and execution. ~ Mark Deming