Written by: Dave Cantrell
Having finally shame-on-me discovered them when tasked with reviewing fifth album Wild Vision in 2016 (twenty full years past their original Elephant 6-affiliated formation, mind), it seems best to let that piece speak to backgrounds musical and geographical – such as pivotal Great Laker Ben Crum’s evolution from the Athens-then to the Brooklyn-now – and just move straight into the songs. It’s those, after all, succinct in their expansive way, fluent in the unspoken language of heart and soul (that we all know when we hear it) and almost casually virtuosic, to which listeners flock like moths to a glowing porchlight. Now, even though that flock may well be somewhat select in purely demographic terms, reflecting in that sense that Elephant 6 genealogy, if that sees Great Lakes slotted under the heading ‘critics darlings,’ well then it’s reliably the case that nearly everyone that hears them becomes, perforce, a charmed and swooning critic. These are songs in that ‘peerless audio-rich singer-songwriter’ style, cruising smoothly from track to track, touching at will on templates as needed with a no-sweat-broken naturalism.
To corroborate we need look no further than first track “End of an Error,” leaping out of the box with something of a fuzzcore shoegaze vibe while its solos bend resolutely psych-ward. But if that’s not enough, how about the next, “Bury the Hatchet,” a piece of tongue-in-mordant-cheek country folk that shines with an acid-sweet spite to the point where one imagines anyone slow-dancing to it has a concealed carry permit in their back pocket. And that’s the thing about the songs Crum conjures for this band (the same personnel here as on Vision with an assist from Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger), one takes them both too lightly and too literally at one’s peril. Lean too much in either direction and they’ll sting you between the ears.
Take “Minor Blues.” Locating loosely between Little Feat and Lee Hazlewood, it’s a bit of a pop-twangy dream redolent of its title but it cuts, if rather quietly, as if sung by Neil Young. Or the lambent, hushed love song “Gold” that seems, by sighing implication, to suggest that the object of its devotion offers a level of hope only in proportion to what would be lost should it go. Or – and especially this one – the undyingly lovely album closer “You Could Have Had Me For A Song” which, besides imagining the Jesus and Mary Chain being influenced by Sweetheart-era Byrds, luxuriates in an existential off-handedness that disarms, upon contact, whatever defenses the listener would dare stand against it. Not to sell it too hard – impossible anyway – but the track also contains the lyric, spoken by the woman that inspired the song and delivered with a cross of wonderment and candor, “seek no one’s blessing / there is no lesson,” crushing perhaps to those that believe otherwise but so beautifully presented it’s doubtful they’ll care.
One of the joys of having signed up years ago to scribble down my thoughts about this or that album is finding myself unforeseeably exposed, on a fairly regular basis, to songs that qualify, in their innateness and emotional bearing, as personally life-defining. “You Could Have Had Me For A Song” is one of those, and the fact is, it’s not really that unusual to find likely candidates on a Great Lakes album. Crum as a songwriter has that ability, as unassuming as it is undeniable, of cracking open whatever protective shell’s been built up over a lifetime of hurt and disappointment – as every life to some extent must inevitably contain – and letting the honesty flow and shape itself into not just song but as well a glimpse of hope possible, redemption obtainable. As a process it can’t be easy – and certainly not as easy as it’s made to sound here – but there are those artists that push themselves it’s what they do and then you look again at the title of this record and say under your breath ‘Ah, yes. No wonder.’ Dreaming Too Close to the Edge indeed.