Wednesday, July 26, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1034: The Wooden Sky

I’m having one of those weeks where I feel like I’ve got too much going on all at the same time. However, I’ve been stealing moments wherever I can to listen to music (I spent part of Sunday enjoying the Drive-By Truckers’ album “Dirty South”. Along the way, I was able to sneak in this next review as well.

Disc 1034 is…Swimming in Strange Waters
Artist: The Wooden Sky

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A drawing by KathrynMacnaughton. I can’t say I like it too much – I guess I’m a bit more literal with my art. Maybe there’s just too much going on – kind of like this album.

How I Came To Know It: I am a fan, so this was just me buying the new Wooden Sky album when it came out and hoping for the best. I really need to stop doing this.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Wooden Sky albums, which is all their full length studio efforts, as far as I know. Of those five, I must reluctantly put “Swimming in Strange Waters” in fifth (aka last).

Ratings: 2 stars

I really love the Wooden Sky, and since discovering them in 2012 every album I’ve drilled into their back catalogue and forward into their new releases with equal joy. When I saw them live in 2014 it was one of the best shows I've ever seen.

Because of those high expectations, “Swimming in Strange Waters” ended up being a disappointment. It isn’t terrible, but it is a slight departure for their sound, adopting a more sonic-wall rock sound building the stronger rock edge they developed on 2014’s “Let’s Be Ready” over their former balance between indie folk and rock. Like a long-time customer to a coffee shop that changes its beans, I found myself wishing they’d stuck with the old brew. Or when you go to buy the doughnut of the month, but they’ve switched from that awesome roasted pineapple and coconut one to some trendy salted caramel thing.

Indie music really lends itself to metaphors about hipster coffee shops. But I digress…

What I’m saying is this record has a lot going on musically. The melodies are awash in a host of pings, whines and various percussive experiments designed to give you layers to explore. The album’s title is the best metaphor here, where the sound feels immersive and diffuse and also a little bit weird. I usually love weird, but here it just felt like at the recording studio one person after another said “And then we could add this! And then this!” and no one said no.

The first two tracks left me pretty alienated, but when “You’re Not Alone” came on next it had a promising start that made me think things were going to turn around. Regrettably, rather than sticking to the rolling melody and Gavin Gardiner’s evocative rock/folk voice, the song is loaded with extra production. Strings are played and plucked and organ drones, all of it drowning a song that would have been better presented with less.

Deadhorse Creek” starts with a fine cross between rockabilly and southern rock but descends midway through into a bit of clangor that indie music is all too willing to descend to (note to indie rockers: don’t beat the melody into submission, resolve it. The song recovers its narrative by the end, but by then I was grumpy with all the crashing.

It isn’t until the end of Side A that I was finally rewarded with the haunting beauty of “Born to Die.” I’m not sure what this song is about, but it is something terrible and cold and strangely compelling. Imagery of blood in the snow that makes you shiver, and the lights of justice flashing. “Born to Die” is Gardiner at his best as a songwriter, aided ably by a simple acoustic guitar that winds its way hesitantly through the song’s imagery like a partially frozen stream meandering across a field.

Although more on the rock side of their sound, “Black Gold” is also solid with a drum beat that feels a little military, and again that southern rock vibe that was a welcome surprise from a Toronto band.

Unfortunately, standouts like “Born to Die” and “Black Gold” felt too few and far between to redeem a record that has solid bones, but drowns at times in its own busyness.

I’m tempted to keep this one for a while because I’m a fan of the Wooden Sky (and I would go see them live again in a heartbeat) but space is of a premium, so unless it is saved by Sheila, it is getting passed on to a home that will love it more than I can.

Best tracks: Born to Die, Black Gold

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