For a recently gathered collective, there is a satisfying and even surprising restraint and confidence about Grand Lake Islands and their first full-length release Song From Far. The Portland group are the brainchild of Erik Emanuelson, who quit his job as an English teacher to move to the Pacific North-West to pursue his love of music.
In any circumstances, such a move is a considerable risk and his meditations on the manner in which the familiar becomes unrecognisable hit home with an impact greatened by his wonderful voice. By the end of the opening title track there are hints of Jim James, Thom Yorke and Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan. It is a wonderful warm mix with plenty of power but a lovely soothing quality.
Part of the season Emanuelson’s vocals stand out is the sympathetic airing these songs are given by the rest of his band. Grand Lake Islands are not showy, they are not about taking solos, all is done in the service of the songs.
Following the strong opener, ‘Diamond Eyes’ is a thing of beauty with its lush instrumentation while Monterey rolls along nicely and shows Grand Lake Islands are not afraid to lift the tempo when needed. But the stand-out moments on this record are where they allow themselves to cut loose. The closing ‘Song From Near’ may well be the best thing on the album, which hits the gut with bludgeoning force as it gallops along. Similarly the building and crashing of ‘White To Grey’ is stunning.
These are moments that hint at the urgency and desire which prompted Emanuelson to pack in his job and up sticks, and the only weakness of the album is at times it lacks any sense of propulsion. Emanuelson has been on a thrilling journey, but the telling of it occasionally suffers because the backing is too well-mannered. You can hear the comfort Grand Lake Islands have playing in each other’s company, but it would be good to hear them challenge themselves a bit more, as the moments when they allow themselves to do so are the most potent here. Having said that Song From Far is a strong listen, but you sense and hope there is going to be plenty more to come.
Words: Andrew Gwilym