Graded on a Curve:
Great Lakes,
Wild Vision

Having emerged in Athens, GA roughly two decades ago, Great Lakes’ formative period was the byproduct of three individuals and a load of Southeastern psych-pop support. However, since 2008 the outfit’s increasingly mature country and folk inflected shots have been called from the home base of Brooklyn by founding singer-songwriter-guitarist Ben Crum. Now after a gap of five years Great Lakes are back with Wild Vision; it’s out January 22 on the band’s own Loose Trucks label.

Formed in 1996 when the songwriting tandem of Ben Crum and Dan Donahue hooked up with James Huggins, Great Lakes was initially part of the labyrinthine circuitry comprising the Elephant 6 Collective, mainly through a live lineup featuring many of the scene’s participants including utility bass player Derek Almstead and members of Elf Power, Of Montreal (indeed Kevin Barnes), Essex Green, Ladybug Transistor, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

Furthermore, their second and fourth albums were released on the Elephant 6-associated Orange Twin label as The Apples in Stereo’s honcho Robert Schneider mixed their self-titled 2000 debut for Kindercore. It was an effort defined by sunny neo ‘60s psych-pop, flashes of bold guitar, and occasional distinguishing wrinkles like the AOR-ish keyboard of “Become the Ship.”

While a pleasant affair, Great Lakes is largely of interest to fans of the more forthrightly psych-pop, twee-leaning chapters of the Elephant 6 saga. The record’s 2002 follow-up The Distance Between traveled a similar path, a nifty cover of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” amongst its selections, but it also stretched out a bit, particularly on the lengthy rocking closer “Conquistadors.”

In 2002 Crum and Donahue moved to Brooklyn as Higgins’ role diminished; 2006’s Diamond Times for Empyrean Records offered a significant stylistic progression. Drifting away from the psychedelic milieu, the template throughout was fortified by the aforementioned country and folk leanings, with “Farther” reminiscent of Wilco’s more straight-ahead moments.

“Hot Cosmos” augmented the Tweedy-esque angle with a ‘70s Buck/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac bent and horns recalling early Steely Dan, but more importantly “Night Hearts” and the title track exuded resemblances to the less tongue in cheek work of Camper Van Beethoven and David Lowery’s subsequent work in Cracker.

Prior to 2010 Crum had become the sole original member of Great Lakes and that year’s Ways of Escape completed the shift into singer-songwriter-angled country-folk-rock territory; reflecting the change is a version of John Prine’s “Sour Grapes,” while across the 11 cuts snatches of Will Oldham, Gram Parsons, Petty’s Heartbreakers, and The Band can be heard.

Ways of Escape was conceived by a noteworthy cast of musicians including Jay Israelson (Mice Parade) on piano and Jon Natchez (Beirut, Yellow Ostrich, The War On Drugs, tons of sessions) on horns, and for Wild Vision Crum has reconvened the previous disc’s core unit; vocalist Suzanne Nienaber, drummer Kevin Shea (Mostly Other People Do the Killing), bassist David Lerner (Ted Leo and the Pharmacists), and keyboardist Joe McGinty (The Psychedelic Furs).

Additionally, Philip Sterk is back on pedal steel and longtime cohort Heather McIntosh (Circulatory System, Japancakes, Gnarls Barkley) returns on cello as well. Sometimes reverting to the same well of inspiration produces a lesser result, but here the choice generates the opposite effect as Wild Vision delivers a creative peak for Crum and Great Lakes.

Opener “Swim the River” weds crisp strum and effervescent electric licks to Shea and Lerner’s crack rhythm section as tasteful keyboard and synth deepens the equation. Gliding atop it all is Crum, his vocal lead well-shaded by Nienaber’s pretty and unfussy accompaniment, their recurring partnership at the microphone lending the LP one of its best qualities.

“Bird Flying” is tougher rock at a slower tempo, the environs boosted by understated organ and Crum’s dynamically impressive soloing. There is the lingering similarity of Crum’s voice to Lowery’s, but the quality (by no means a fault) is offset by his continued interaction with Nienaber, and the song subtly ramps up in the instrumental coda.

Steering kinda close to the middle of the contempo country-folk road, the easygoing nature of “Kin to the Mountain” gets substantially strengthened by superb musicianship nodding back to the ‘70s heyday of the no-nonsense studio pros; McGinty’s mildly Ian Stewart-esque piano is an especially attractive ingredient.

“Wild Again” navigates a sturdier zone, though one with a palpable current of country-ish dramatics (think ‘60s movie theme songs) via Sterk’s pedal steel, Crum and Nienaber’s singing, and a song-structure led by Crum’s guitar that adroitly intensifies as it nears the finish. “Nature is Always True” ends side one with a tenser folk-rock atmosphere enhanced by threads of pop stateliness.

Rather than Lowery, “I Stay, You Go” finds Crum slightly evoking an unperturbed Alex Chilton wrangling up a Memphis femme and attempting a response to Gram’s duets with Emmylou Harris. Combining splendid writing with expert instrumentation and exceptional vocal execution, it provides Wild Vision a standout.

The uptempo locomotion of “Beauties of the Way” wields a sophisto ambiance that to these ears suggests the solo albums of veteran rockers from the latter portion of the ‘80s, e.g. Robbie Robertson and T-Bone Burnett, but happily with a better approach to production (specifically in the drum sound) as the scenario is reinforced by elements of synth.

“Blood on My Tooth” can’t help but bring to mind Camper Van Beethoven circa Key Lime Pie, though the songwriting feels more personal; McGinty again very deftly flavors the pot with keys of a springy ‘70s funk variety. Picking up the pace for a C&W-tinged finale, “Shot At and Missed” contrasts the vocal smoothness (perhaps the pair’s finest showing on the record) with the band’s robust delivery as Crum’s guitar remains at the fore.

The Great Lakes of the 21st century registers as a near completely different proposition from the one that existed during 2000 to 2002. Diamond Times links the promising yet ultimately minor early work to the considerable achievements of the last two LPs. The confident and appealing Wild Vision serves as the pinnacle of this unforeseeable but welcome circumstance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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