Record: Roundelay (OFF TEMPO Records, 2020)
Once in a lifetime, each of us feels we have all the time in the world. Some recording artists evoke such a strong feeling for this elasticity of time and opportunity — for limitless possibilities — they defy physics and remain inspired, even as the years grind on, especially if they were lucky enough to be part of a few halcyon music scenes from the days of Pacific Northwest Indie, post-hardcore, and lo-fi dispositions. Artists such as Beat Happening, The Microphones, D+, Karl Blau, Kimya Dawson, Mirah, RVIVR, and many more. LAKE (today being Eli Moore, Ashley Eriksson, and Andrew Dorsett, from a lineup that has stretched to include as many as seven band members), is one such lucky band — still an energetic part of this resilient music legacy. LAKE formed nearly 15 years ago in Olympia, Washington, was once in the stable of influential artists on the K Records label, and remains central to this perception. There’s also something slightly scary about these bands today (if you live in the Pacific Northwest and write about music), many of whom withstand changes in popular taste as they make new music, release new records (on vinyl) every year or two, tour when they can, and find time to share their skills on friends’ records as well. Is it because of their fierce independence? Because of their spooky improvisational DIY adaptability? Or because of their stubborn refusal to stop doing what they’re doing when the music business spirals ever more into whatever corporate madness might be in vogue? What they do, they do for themselves. Every new record is a study in tradition as much as an exploration of development and regeneration. The latest from LAKE, “Roundelay” (OFF TEMPO Records, 2020), is at once an emblematic link to LAKE’s beginnings as well as being a fresh extension of their musical experimentation from their formative years as rookie recording artists, into what today they playfully refer to as “elevator punk” (more about this idea in the review below). Released on vinyl as 11 tracks (but on Bandcamp with a bonus treat of the same tracks in instrumental form, no lyrics, 22 tracks in all), “Roundelay” is the natural and playful progression of the band’s songwriting expansion. LAKE has always written from a sophisticated pop perspective, but many of the themes they explore are darker, more serious. It would be a mistake to write them off as merely a pop remnant from another time. And having this record’s songs in two versions allows for an even deeper study of the emotional impact and structural design behind this band’s work. The matching instrumental tracks shimmer and dance with character and vitality that make their counterparts (with lyrics) come into sharper relief. LAKE remains a dynamic legacy of what musicians can do when they spring forth from a community of cash-strapped experimenters and innovators. “Roundelay” is an exciting reminder of how time, while indeed being in short supply for us all, with the right friends and grit, can be pulled back. It’s not over until it’s over! Every LAKE record is a much needed and reassuring reminder that we can be our own masters (of what we make), even if we don’t have all the time in the world (we never do).
Track 1: Roundelay
Track 2: She Plays One Chord
Track 3: Resolution
Track 4: Forgiveness
Track 5: Bubble
Track 6: Don’t Pray For Me
Track 7: Without It
Track 8: Hanged Man
Track 9: Talons & Feathers
Track 10: Tell Me What Is True Love
Track 11: Cup Sludge
Track 12: Roundelay (Instrumental)
Track 13: She Plays One Chord (Instrumental)
Track 14: Resolution (Instrumental)
Track 15: Forgiveness (Instrumental)
Track 16: Bubble (Instrumental)
Track 17: Don’t Pray For Me (Instrumental)
Track 18: Without It (Instrumental)
Track 19: Hanged Man (Instrumental)
Track 20: Talons & Feathers (Instrumental)
Track 21: Tell Me What Is True Love (Instrumental)
Track 22: Cup Sludge (Instrumental)
Occasionally, people tell us that what we do is helpful to them psychologically. I don’t know why, other than that I think art is healthy, and we obviously aren’t doing it for the money. It’s something we like and (dare I say) need to do. I’d like to think that if you’re making art for yourself, then it’s helping the world somehow. I hope this is true.Eli Moore
In music, as in life, creating an independent identity is the thing — essential for survival, but never a given. For bands rising up from intensely competitive local music scenes (some of which have come to represent larger-than-life distinctive songwriting and record-label moments), much like what happened in Olympia, Washington, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the heyday for small record labels such as K Records and Kill Rock Stars, it happened for more than one generation of creatives. For artists such as Beat Happening, The Microphones, D+, Karl Blau, Kimya Dawson, Mirah, RVIVR, and LAKE, among many others, it was a masterclass in bold experimentation, collaboration, and situational optimism.
For LAKE (today composed primarily of Eli Moore, Ashley Eriksson, and Andrew Dorsett, from a lineup that has included as many as seven official band members, with many more collaborators), each of their nine LPs (spanning the years 2006 through 2020), plus a few miscellaneous singles and appearances on other labels, LAKE has established a relaxed and open-hearted aesthetic where each record has moved them forward as a band, while remaining just a little illusive in terms of an exact definition of their home genre placement. Conspicuously idiosyncratic, the “LAKE sound” has slipped through a handful of genre designations, ranging from avant-garde to sophisti-pop. In 2020, the band settled upon “elevator punk” (based on a joke from a “band friend” about the dexterity of the word “punk” in history, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Arthur Rimbaud).
“Over the years, LAKE hasn’t consistently identified as one thing or another,” said Eli Moore, in a recent email to The Palace. “We’ve always loved collaboration and bringing friends and other musicians in. At one point we actually described the band as a ‘collective,’” he said. “That would be the ideal ‘band’ in my opinion.” So, how do LAKE songs get written? “For the most part, Ashley and I write the songs,” said Moore. “We’re also married and like working on music together. Markly Morrison, Andrew Dorsett, and Linus (Lindsay) Schief have all written songs or helped in the writing process. But usually Ashley and I bring complete songs to the band.”
Probably the best LAKE records have been recorded at The Unknown, overseen by the safest pair of engineering studio hands one could hope for, Nicholas Wilbur (who also co-produced the latest LAKE record, overseeing recording, mixing, and mastering). The Unknown is a former Catholic Church in Anacortes, Washington, turned secular recording temple by Phil Elverum and Wilbur. With it’s “crying room” (control room), “bell tower” (that isn’t really one), and shabby-chic intimate disposition, the consolidated Unknown/Wilbur entity have become a defacto presence in the presentation of this new, ebullient LAKE aggregate.
The band’s latest record, “Roundelay” (OFF TEMPO Records, 2020), is an amalgam of many of these ideas and the combined experiences of lots of familiar players (to those who’ve followed this band’s career). “Roundelay” shines within its communal history plus has some new explorations thrown in to test easy assumptions (yes, you can almost hear a kind of retro “jazz fusion sound” slipping through a couple of these tracks). “The first song on the record, ‘Roundelay,’ is lyrically playing with punk idols like GG Allin [1956–1993] and Darby Crash [1958–1980] and exploring a dark place, lyrically — with our lines like ‘Ditch the message… / Be uncertain…’,” said Moore. “But the music is probably the most complex we’ve ever recorded. It was a very ambitious song for us to record — it plays on elevator jazz modalities, but subverts and takes advantage of some of those rules to make chaos.”
I pretty much always write about what’s happening, or on my mind, on the day I’m writing. I’d also like to think we don’t dwell on the past, but we’re certainly inspired and created by the past.Eli Moore
“I like what ‘punk’ means in a lot of contexts — doing it yourself, doing what you want to do, not trying to sound like anybody else, being yourself,” said Moore. “But we also like to get pretty smooth and occasionally we’re inspired by very ‘canned’ and tame, smooth jazz and yacht rock! The goal is not to care what people think — but of course, I always want people to like our music.”
And what about this notion that, “LAKE got heavy!” for “Roundelay,” something, apparently, “exuberantly yelled” out by a fan at a LAKE show on the band’s home island, Whidbey Island (before their touring for “Roundelay” came to an abrupt end with COVID)? “With the new lineup of LAKE,” said Moore, “we’re stripped down to just guitar, bass, and drums. Andrew is our drummer, I play guitar, and Ashley plays bass. Live, we’ve gotten louder. In the past we’ve switched around a lot. Andrew is a very dynamic drummer, and I’ve been exploring the dynamics of the guitar more than ever.
“As a three-piece, there’s more room for us to play loud,” Moore continued. “On ‘Roundelay,’ there’s still the usual keys and synths, but live we kind of had to get loud — heavy — in order to figure out how to play with only a few instrumentalists. I can understand why this might not make sense if you’re just hearing the album. Playing live, we work with the dynamics rather than arranging for a variety of instruments. When the band became just the three of us, due mostly to geographical issues, we kind of had to reinvent the band, to get to the core of what LAKE is.”
I’d like to think we’re getting wiser with age, but only time will tell.Eli Moore
“‘Roundelay’ is actually our most collaborative record to date. Andrew [Dorsett] co-wrote four of the songs and was essential in the arrangements of all of the songs,” said Moore. “Ashley and Andrew are friends from high school — I don’t think we’d be LAKE without Andrew — he’s been a consistent and essential part of the band since before we made our first album.”
Speaking of arrangements, there’s a hidden treat for those who purchase the Bandcamp “Roundelay” digital album (fortunately vinyl copies are still available if you’re searching for one, although the limited edition clear-vinyl version is gone). Released as 11 album tracks, after purchase 11 instrumental tracks become available (all of the songs in instrumental form, no lyrics, 22 tracks in all). This makes for a completely different listening experience, providing a chance to delve deeper into song structure, atmosphere, and texture. Sometimes lyrics can dazzle and distract. Like a collection of demos, there’s immense pleasure in peeking behind the magic curtain of how a band you love goes about their craft.
“Roundelay,” like nearly all of LAKE’s records, provides just enough space between their lyrical metaphors to play endless games of interpretation. There’s a feeling this record picks up gravity around track 6 (“Don’t Pray for Me“) and track 7 (“Without It“). For example, track 8, “Hanged Man,” (“A hanging man in a tree / upside down looking at me /… What is wrong with the picture you see?”) suggests a tarot card by the same name found in most traditional decks. Given this clue, if it is a clue, it’s tempting to look for other tarot hidden meanings, such as personal wisdom versus collective wisdom, actions versus outcomes, and especially with time itself — how our ideas of time influence our situations. And so, we come full circle back to age versus wisdom. LAKE’s superpower, if they have a superpower (and I think they do), is their faith in the community they’ve surrounded themselves with. Their optimism remains fresh, from record to record, because their center has held. As long as they remain just a little mysterious — a little out of reach — every record LAKE makes will feel like a mischievous combination of avant-garde intensity and humor, powered by retro time travel. I’m jealous.
(where not otherwise credited)
“Garden” / study from a larger photograph by Annie Spratt on Unsplash (an extraordinary artist and photographer based in England; you can see hundreds of her photographs from the link of her name)
“Forest” (footer) / photo & design done by GP using Canva