Over the course of five albums, the Wooden Sky have toed the line between folk, alt-country and full on 90s rock. If I Don’t Come Home, You’ll Know I’m Gone had its noisier moments, most strikingly and effectively on “Something Hiding For Us In The Night”. The follow-up, Every Child A Daughter, Every Moon A Sun is a contemplative and beautiful album, but the band avoided all of the fun peppered throughout their previous releases. This change in pace made 2014’s Let’s Be Ready an excellent surprise and more than just a return to form for the band. The songs were tighter, better crafted and most importantly the band was not afraid to rock–best heard on the Hip-indebted “When The Day Is Fresh and The Light Is New”.
Swimming In Strange Waters is without question the most capital-R rock album so far from the Wooden Sky. Primarily recorded in frontman Gavin Gardiner’s home studio, the album has a grittiness that their previous records have lacked. The band has long covered Nirvana’s “All Apologies” in their live sets, and it’s great to finally hear that influence permeate one of their studio albums. “Life Is Pain, Pain Is Beauty” is based around a steady and propulsive bass groove. The song slowly swells around it, leading to an epic peak featuring Gardiner’s rarely heard scream as the band is filled out by a wash of strings. “Dead Horse Creek” is a countrified stomper fitted with a wailing harmonica, a honky tonk bridge and some great vocal touches from Gardiner, especially when his voice fries in the choruses. “Black Gold” employs a similar stomp but turns into one of the heaviest and most soaring Wooden Sky songs to date. The title track’s woozy euphoria is largely thanks to the incredible keyboard work of Simon Walker. It sounds like the musical equivalent of a weight being taken off your shoulders–as if Gardiner and his band are moving past the darkness of the song’s heavy subject matter as the song progresses.
There a few songs that seem to fit more neatly into the Wooden Sky’s formula, like the hopeful “You’re Not Alone” and “Matter of Time”, but even these songs manage to keep things a little weird. The former features some great string accompaniment, especially during the chorus and concludes with an off-kilter and unexpected outro. “Matter of Time” has a crisp falsetto chorus but explodes and the end with a honking sax solo.
With Swimming In Strange Waters, the Wooden Sky have proven themselves to be one of Canada’s most consistent and true-to-themselves bands. There are no cheap attempts to get played on the radio, only expanding on and beefing up their already powerful sound. Yes, the album rocks but it also manages to be their most experimental, lyrically prescient and unpredictable release yet. There is a little something for everyone on Swimming In Strange Waters–soulful, soaring rock, a few lullabies, some Hip worship–all powered by the will of a band that’s been around the block a few times to keep on keepin’ on expanding and perfecting their sound.