If Fleet Foxes and MGMT got together and had a love child, one that was subsequently sent to a commune in a forest and raised by gypsies, it might sound something like the The Wilderness of Manitoba. We got our first listen of the Toronto-based hippie-folk-revival quintet’s latest album, Island of Echoes, ahead of its official release party, slated for Oct. 26. The verdict? Pure magic.
While its single “Morning Sun” serves as the hook, The Wilderness of Manitoba runs the gamut on this record, and the band’s range cannot be fully understood until you listen to the album in its entirety. Island of Echoes eases us in with an instrumental number, then kicks it up with spectral choruses and twangy gypsy-folk numbers that are both delicate and dauntless at the same time. Their trademark lavish vocals, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac or, more recently, fellow Torontonians Great Lake Swimmers, play well to the powerfully sweeping instrumentation.
And for this, the third full-length from the Wilderness, they’ve made some significant changes. For the first time, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Will Whitwham picked up an electric guitar, which fleshes out the arrangements — most of which still include thrumming strings, brash percussion and of course, the plunky hollowness of the banjo (which you should know by now that I find absolutely irresistible). They also collaborated with some new lady singers, namely The Gertrudes’ Amanda Balsys, Whale Tooth’s Elise LeGrow and Felicity Williams.
It’s clear that this is their first studio album, since previous efforts were mostly recorded in the basement of a house in the Bloor and Ossington neighbourhood. And that’s probably the most surprising thing we’ve come to learn about them — that despite the chaotic and hurried atmosphere that goes hand-in-hand with urban living, The Wilderness of Manitoba have put together a cohesive album that conjures the mellow and laid-back dreaminess of an idyllic countrified landscape.
Once you get accustomed to the dreamy, chorused vocals and astral orchestration, the words hit you. From morbid lines heard in “Chasing Horses,” a contemplative number lamenting the afterlife and the undertaker, to “White Woods,” in which battle breaks out between a poet and a writer living inside their heads, The Wilderness implore fans to do some heavy reflection. If anyone is guilty of overplaying a song until it becomes stale and repetitive, it’s me. But the more you listen to this, the more involved in the album you become, until you’re completely enveloped in the band’s storied year — a majority of which they spent on the road.
Island of Echoes provides us with depth, and it forces listeners to work a bit harder and peel away at each layered track. It just keeps getting better and better. And as its title would suggest, Island of Echoes not only evokes whimsy and memory, but something that might serve as a soundtrack to a lucid dream or a past life. Simply put: flawlessly poetic.
The Island of Echoesrelease party is on Oct. 26 at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church