While the Wooden Sky's last album, Let's Be Ready, was probably their most accessible to date, Swimming in Strange Waters has a raw, live energy that'll be familiar to fans who've seen them in larger venues. This album is also more experimental, with multiple textures creating a more visceral, associative sound.
Tonally, Gavin Gardiner's voice keeps growing closer to the dusty, woody sound of Joseph Arthur or David Bazan, though once in a while he'll unleash a wide vibrato that'd make Stevie Nicks smile. The more associative approach here is rooted in feel and energy more than clear-cut narrative storytelling, so articulation is secondary to expression. "You're Not Alone" stands out for its warm and familiar Fleetwood Mac sound at first, with a sprinkling of romance from pizzicato strings in the chorus. Even without any lyrics, the feeling would still be a comforting one.
"Black Gold" was reportedly inspired by the Keystone XL pipeline protests, and is grounded by a unifying pulse, while "Riding on the Wind" tells stories of refugee families Gardiner met during the band's work with Carty House and Romero House. No matter how political his subject matter might seem, Gardiner's poetic writing never feels too didactic.
"Matter of Time" finds Gardiner channeling '50s rock influences, aided by a squawking sax towards the end of the song. One clue as to the fun they had experimenting is the candid "whew, alright alright!" at the beginning of the one acoustic-guitar-led song "Born to Die." Other snippets, like the weird little organ solo at the end of "Swimming in Strange Waters," draw more abstract connections, but the general feeling one gets is that this adaptive, evolving band are continually challenging themselves. (Nevado)