The title of The Wooden Sky's fifth full-length album is an abridged quote from Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune: "Survival is the ability to swim in strange water." It's a phrase that seems especially apt in 2017, as many of us are still reeling from the previous year. For Gavin Gardiner, the frontman of the Toronto-based indie rock band, the way to understand and reconcile these unknowns – from oil pipelines and refugee crises to his own family's personal history – is through songwriting. Swimming in Strange Waters is Gardiner trying to make sense of the world.
The resulting album is a sonic maelstrom that sees the band exploring unchartered waters, where textural psychedelia inspired by the Paisley Underground movement melds into quiet, acoustic cyclical guitar melodies, before once again transforming into a bombastic, Johnny Cash-esque rally against the XL Keystone pipeline in Canada. While Let's Be Ready found the Wooden Sky writing a pure "rock and roll" album, Swimming in Strange Waters sees the band experimenting once again. John Angello (known for his work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Phosphorescent and Kurt Vile) mixed the album at Water Music in New Jersey. Around 95 percent of it was recorded to an old tape machine at Gardiner's home studio, and the rest was done at Hotel2Tango in Montreal and at a Toronto church.
"Deadhorse Creek," which is named after the body of water that runs through Gardiner's hometown of Morden, Manitoba, creates a layered soundscape with backward guitar, easygoing harmonica and a crooning slide guitar that all erupt in a foot-stomping, rollicking jam; "Black Gold", inspired by the Keystone XL pipeline protests, features a 16-person choir, a Velvet Undergroundesque screaching violin undertone by band member Edwin Huizinga, and Gardiner embracing a lower register for the first time; "Riding on the Wind" tells stories about refugee families Gardiner met while working with Romero House, over a bed of dreamy reverb. Meanwhile first single "Swimming in Strange Waters" glimmers like a technicolored circus with warbling synths and organs, cyclical, vocoder-drenched gang vocals and a spoken word interlude, performed by The Highest Order's Simone Schmidt reading from Herbert's Dune Messiah.