BY BARRY ST. VITUS
The sixth full album from Tony Dekker and crew is an ambitious affair that might set you back on your heels, if you’re at all familiar with the Canadian outfit. With past releases you pretty much knew what to expect from their music, a comfortable, rustically crafted, sparse, “Americana” sound, replete with banjo and fiddle, with Tony’s vocals floating as light as a oil-slick rainbow on water. They create a place where folk-rock meets country and bluegrass, and converge into a soothing, atmospheric lushness. I can still recall a moment in the third season of WEEDS that made hairs stand up on my neck, where Nancy, now enslaved by a vicious drug dealer, is forced to go on an uphill jog with him, when he is suddenly stuck down by a heart attack upon reaching the summit. His second in command steps in and finishes him off by smothering him, and then the GLS tune, “Your Rocky Spine” comes up chillingly.
Much of their music is hauntingly beautiful, and on A Forest of Arms, they’ve raised the ante by incorporating a string orchestra and chorus, in parts. to fortify their usual guitars, piano, and occasional pedal steel They also seem to have a fondness for recording live in eccentric locales, like a remote island, or in this case, a large cavern outside of Toronto. Two other studios are utilized through the recording process, one being Chalet Studios on 40 acres in a pastoral setting. They are great champions of environmental issues, so that’s an ongoing theme in a lot of the music on the album.
Their previous album, New Wild Everywhere was dotted with baroque string arrangements, to great effect, and even more so throughout this offering.
“Something Like A Storm” gets the album off to a rousing start with full string accompaniment, a lusty backbeat and some merry la-la-la’s. “Zero In the City” is very representative of pure, GLS sound that runs through most of their albums, tuneful and endearing. Dekker’s lyrics are, often as not, powerful prose, not always dependent on rhyming, leaving a lot to interpretation, not unlike some of Dylan’s nonsensical lyrics. “Shaking All Over” flies aloft on soaring strings, the song seems to be cautionary advice to someone on the edge, from someone not too sure of their own footing….
“Yeah set me on fire and watch me fly
You can feel how I burn, you can see how I try
You’re my number one puncher, my number one fist
You’re my heaven and my heartbeat, my one true bliss
So let me down on the floor, I can’t take any more
Of the snakes against angels, and stairways to heaven
And more different faces than a couple of dice
I’m shaking all over and I can’t control it
Every day could be your last
Hurry darling, hurry fast
Time won’t slow for anyone
Out on the tracks at a quarter to one.”
One of the more upbeat numbers, “One More Charge At the Red Cape,” showcases the band at their best, with an energy that draws you in. You can hear Miranda Mulholland’s violin ripping rosin over the background strings. Also upbeat, is “I Must Have someone Else’s Blues,” a more straight-ahead country-rock entry, not too unlike something fellow Canuck’s The Sadies might do, albeit with some happy, whistling dwarves.
Then, there are several slow and moody songs like “I Was A Wayward Pastel Bay,” “The Great Bear,’ and the baroque strings of “Don’t Leave Me Hanging,” that lend a calming peacefulness to the album. “A Jukebox In A Desert of Snow” is more of an indie-rock addition, with a flourish of Gypsy violin rippling throughout. “With Every Departure,” heavily draped in strings and banjo, Dekker’s vocals, accompanied with echoey harmonies, lend an airiness that brings to mind both Buffalo Springfields’ “Expecting To Fly” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Trouble Water.”
The album ends with a rather clever twist, as the last song, “Expecting You,” is a slower version, with slightly different lyrics, than the opening song, “Something Like A Storm.,” and, with the la-la-la’s intact. Maybe they were torn on which version to use, and decided to offer up both, as both work nicely.
While not much new ground is broken on A Forest of Arms, and it fails to surpass 2012’s excellent New Wild Everywhere, something can be said for the additional polish the music gets from heavy string embellishment and rather refined production values.
DOWNLOAD: “One More Charge At the Red Cape,” “I Must Have Someone Else’s Blues,” and “Shaking All Over.“ (Close runners-up –“I Was A Wayward Pastel Bay,” and ”With Every Departure.”)