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Great Lakes; Photo courtesy of Great Lakes
Great Lakes emerged from Athens, GA roughly two decades ago, but the band led by singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ben Crum has been based in Brooklyn since 2002. Formed in 1996, Great Lakes was initially part of the Elephant 6 Collective.
The band’s 2000 debut, mixed by Apples in Stereo honcho Robert Schneider, owed much to the psychedelic pop of the ’60s, as did the band’s second album, The Distance Between. 2006’s Diamond Times for Empyrean Records, however, offered a significant stylistic progression. Drifting away from the psychedelic milieu, the band’s sound took on country and folk leanings, with “Farther” reminiscent of both Wilco’s and Teenage Fanclub’s more straight-ahead moments.
By 2008 Crum had become the sole original member of Great Lakes, and the band’s fourth album, Ways of Escape, reflected a further shift into singer-songwriter-oriented country and folk. It also brought with it a change in personnel, as Crum was joined by drummer Kevin Shea, vocalist Suzanne Nienaber, keyboardist Joe McGinty, guitarist Kenny Wachtel, bassist David Lerner, multi-instrumentalist David Gould, and pedal steel player Phil Sterk. This same lineup returned for the band’s 5th album, 2016’s Wild Vision, which delivered what many reviewers called a creative peak for Crum and Great Lakes.
With the band’s 6th album, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, which The Big Takeover has the pleasure of premiering in full here, Crum, Shea, Nienaber, McGinty, Sterk, Gould, and Wachtel return with a record that feels both like a natural progression from Ways of Escape and Wild Vision and hearkens back a bit to the band’s earlier work.
Of the album Crum says, “Somehow it feels like the third, and probably last, album in a three album run of thematically-related records, though I didn’t consciously plan it like that. I wanted Dreaming to sound like I’d imagine it would have sounded if Television, Big Star or the Velvet Underground had made a record that sorta leaned in a country-rock direction.”
Opener “End of an Error” starts the record with brash rock and roll, with its cold, reverb-y mood evoking The Jesus and Mary Chain and its wailing guitar calling to mind Nuggets-era ’60s garage bands and the extended soloing of J Mascis and Neil Young. Next is “Mixed Blood,” which finds Crum and company channeling The Faces and Brinsley Schwarz. “Minor Blues” will appeal to fans of Galaxie 500 and Luna and the ’70s solo records of Ian Matthews and Dion.
The album’s prettiest track,“Bury the Hatchet,” is a finger-picked folk number; a darkly comic song in which Crum sings, “I’d like to bury the hatchet… in your back.” It’s followed by “To Live Is to Lose,” featuring a guest vocal by Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger and some Dire Straits-inspired guitar work from Kenny Wachtel.
Side Two begins with the All Things Must Pass-influenced “Kingdom Came,” with its steel guitar, and continues with the Heartbreakers-meets-country-rock sound of “Time Served.” After the gentle, folk-y “Gold” and the angular pop/rock of “Awaking Up Together” comes the album’s closer, “You Could Have Had Me For a Song.”
It’s a fitting end to an album that, despite its varied styles, is a consistent expression of Crum’s ever-evolving songwriting voice, and offers a hint as to the singer’s worldview: “seek no one’s blessing… there is no lesson.”
Great Lakes’ Dreaming Too Close to the Edge is available April 6 2018, on Loose Trucks.
Ben Crum has graciously taken the time to dive into the new album, giving an informative synopsis of each track and the meaning behind the LP’s title. Read on for more details:
“Dreaming Too Close to the Edge is the latest, and 6th album, by my band Great Lakes. The title comes from something my older kid said. One night I woke up to the sound of a thump and he’d rolled out of bed in his sleep. I went to his bedside to help him back into bed, and, still half asleep, he told me he must’ve been “dreaming too close to the edge.” I laughed and knew that that was my album title, right there. This record feels to me like the third in a series of three very personal, thematically-direct records, with Ways of Escape and Wild Vision being parts one and two. It works on its own, but it’s also the final chapter in that run of records. Taken as a whole, the three albums have something to say that’s bigger than any of them taken on their own.”
“End of An Error”
“Hearts in the wrong place, I’ve known my share of those. I also feel like we are all trying not to repeat our mistakes, but it seems like most of us do. Stylistically, this song is channeling lots of ’90s indie rock influences. Even some ’80s stuff, really. I love Luna and Galaxie 500, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, and Dinosaur Jr. I don’t mind wearing those influences on my sleeve, at all.”
“Bury the Hatchet”
“I guess this is me doing a John Prine-style song, but I don’t think I set out to write one. It was more heartfelt than that, in terms of the writing. But I always liked how a lot of Prine songs are dead serious but also funny if you think about them in a certain light. “Nobody likes a clown,” indeed.”
“I wrote this about the year my family spent in Nashville. We liked that town, and we definitely loved the people we met and got to be friends with there — but in the end we decided it wasn’t for us, and we went back to New York. We felt like we got off with time served, as they say.”
“This is a song about my good friend who went through a terrible version of hell when his wife left him. It was out of the blue for him, and that really threw him. I was talking to a friend about an old Ernie Graham song that I like a lot, and I caught myself saying, “You know. It’s just a minor blues, but…” and that idea kinda stuck in my head as a phrase. My friend, the subject of the song — his blues was anything but minor. But using the phrase that way appealed to my sense of irony, I guess.”
“To Live Is To Lose”
“I like this song a lot. I wrote it in about 5 minutes, first thing in the morning. Didn’t revise the lyrics of anything. Usually I re-write about 50 times. But I just put down the dream I had and to me it was a good song, just as it came out. My old friend Andrew Rieger from Elf Power sang a great guest vocal part on this. He’s kind of a master of cussing in songs. I gave him the cuss word line. My favorite thing about this song is the way it expresses my philosophy on life: to live is to lose. We’re doomed. We’re all going to die. All that. But life is all about losing gracefully. Or losing with style, I guess. I love Kenny Wachtel’s Mark Knopfler-inspired guitar work on this song.”
“This one reminds me, in terms of its musical style, of the first Great Lakes album, but with much weightier subject matter. I adapted a line from Game of Thrones for this song. That’s not really my style, generally, but “a lion doesn’t care what a sheep might say” just said exactly what I wanted to say. Phil Sterk played the lovely pedal steel guitar.”
“I like the sound of The Faces ’70s records a lot. To me, this kind of has that sound. Or it’s sort of my version of it. My favorite line from this song is: “I cannot sing for the mute or carry the lame.” That’s how it is in life. Everyone walks alone. You might get somebody’s attention for just a moment, and when/if you do they look at you like, “So, what you got?”“
“This is a straight-up love song for my wife. She’s magical, and I love her dearly. She’s an incredible partner and mother. This is the line that really gets at the heart of the difference between us: “She is of the heart, and she sees what lies ahead / I see only where I’ve been, but I am of the head”.”
“Awaking Up Together”
“With this song I was trying to put myself back in the frame of mind I was in when I met my wife and we were falling in love. My favorite part of this song is about that feeling I had walking home after one of the first night’s we spent together: “My head swims and replays, like a favorite song.” I tried to channel a bit of that off-kilter Tom Verlaine thing with the lead guitar stuff on this one.”
“You Could Have Had Me For a Song”
“I’m paraphrasing, or maybe quoting (I can’t remember), Kurt Vonnegut in this song when I sing: “Most of us don’t like this life — we’d just as soon end it any time… if not for the ones we love.” I relate to that idea. I’ve never been one of those people that get scared on airplanes. Crazy turbulence, loud booming sounds, whatever. It’s not that I’m suicidal, or have a death wish. I think I’ve just always been OK with the idea of dying. Or I always was. But now that I have a family I feel differently. I want to be there for my kids, to be a good father. This song is also about how our lives feel so random—who we meet, when we meet those people, and the paths we end up taking. And with that, the album comes to a close.”
“Like the last two I’ve made, I think this record kind of asks a lot of the listener. It’s not all about super-catchy psychedelic ear candy and pop hooks. It’s more about the ideas in the songs. If that’s something you’re open to, the record might appeal to you. Thanks for listening.”
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