Doug Tielli may not be a known name worldwide, but in the underground scene in Toronto he is prolific, having collaborated in the past with artists as diverse as Drumheller, an avant-garde jazz outfit, and indie rock band The Reveries. The multi-instrumentalist spent three months at an artist retreat centre to make his debut solo LP, Swan Sky Squirrel Sea. The lion’s share of the 11 songs are performed entirely by him, with a little assistance from Drumheller member Nick Fraser and friend Jennifer Castle.
If albums were to be judged on their opening songs, which they thankfully aren’t, then the first impressions that Tielli gives aren’t the smartest. Yes I Am Lonely is about as scruffy and unpolished an introduction as introductions get. There is definitely a song there somewhere, but there are instruments all over the place – a ukulele here, clattering drum cymbals there – and even the singing, augmented by a small choir, feels slightly off-kilter. However, it sets the scene for the kind of record Swan Sky Squirrel Sea is going to be: a bit of a shambles, but very laid back about being so.
It also prepares the ground for another, slightly quirky side of the record. Squirrel Tips staggers towards the folky side of psychedelic and sounds lost and dazed with guitar notes being bent to places you thought they could never reach. Santia is even more of a trip into the bizarre. It stands out from everything else because of its bouncy nature and its menacing guitars, but when backing whoops emerge it’s all rather non-plussing.
In-between spur-of-the-moment bursts of music and the downright weird, there are some cohesive tunes. When The Sky Opens is a drifter of a track with a contemplative and melancholic-sounding guitar that complements his quivering vocals rather well. Deer, a short two-minute interlude of sorts, is nestled right in the middle amongst the sounds of crickets chirping, and takes one to a different place entirely.
But at its worst, the results can be meanderingly snooze-inducing. The Deepest End, which possibly features the saddest-sounding theremin ever committed to tape, is monstrously slow-paced and laborious as is the bluesy Riversea, which drags on for far too long without any real pay-off. And it’s indicative of the project as a whole, the main criticism of which is its crushingly slow pace. As it progresses, any hopes of things picking up, of a different tone varying things, are dashed.
Swan Sky Squirrel Sea is certainly unique. It will almost certainly test the patience of the listener. There’s only so much a person can take of this naturalistic-sounding album before the lack of any real urgency or purpose becomes too much to bear.