Over the past seven years, Great Lake Swimmers have painstakingly built a reputation as preeminent chroniclers of spooky, weirdAmericana. They’ve recorded on boats and in grain silos; their tempos range from slow to funereal, and they’ve plumbed the depths of every minor chord on the guitar neck; they’ve pasted lonely banjo notes against even lonelier backdrops of feedback, and compared a lover’s back to an uninhabitable landscape (“Your Rocky Spine”). Twenty seconds into their fifth album, they kill off that reputation like a two-bit villain in a Wild West drama. “Think You Might Be Wrong” opens on a typically melancholy note, with tape hiss and a single electric guitar picking a riff from some barely-remembered soul ballad. But then the rhythm kicks in, cymbals shiver and Miranda Mulholland’s violin enters, leading a string quartet that sounds more Julliard thanAppalachia. This is no longer a proudly amateurish outfit exploring out-of-tune folk crevices; these are polished, professional musicians with big-league ambitions spinning a mini-country symphony.
Great Lake Swimmers’ transformation into the new Canadian Eagles shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Their 2009 album Lost Channels introduced jangly guitars and conventional pop structures into the rustic mix and wound up shortlisted for Canada’s Polaris Music Prize. New Wild Everywhere includes a song recorded in a Toronto subway station (“The Great Exhale”), but the rest were finessed in a studio; if the performances and arrangements feel tempered and genteel, they also produce some transcendent moments. “Fields of Progeny” pays tribute to generations of anonymous folk musicians with a melody steeped in Celtic lilt; “On the Water” is a death song accentuating dignity instead of desperation. The high point is “East Come Easy Go,” a barn-raiser that blends buried fuzz and rollicking piano into an anthem of ambiguity, more Gram Parsons than Glenn Frey. Folk and country have their forlorn, musty basements, but songs this good belong on the fanciest stage in town.