Shearwater

The Golden Archipelago
ole-861 CD/LP
Street Date: February 23, 2010


Shearwater continue to explore the beauty, menace, and fragility of the natural world – and that increasingly rare species, the indivisible album – on The Golden Archipelago, the band’s most absorbing and accomplished work to date. The new record is the third panel of a triptych that includes 2006’s enigmatic Palo Santo and 2008’s acclaimed Rook, albums linked by themes of environmental and personal decay and humans’ impact on nature. In The Golden Archipelago, Shearwater turn to a portrait of life on islands – a world of alternating lushness and austerity, numinous silences and sudden cataclysms, and the strange flowerings of plant, animal, and human life that only arise in isolation. These are intimate subjects for songwriter Jonathan Meiburg. As a researcher, he’s camped on islands at the edges of the world, including the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Nunavut, and New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, and once spent a few surreal months in a remote Aboriginal settlement in northern Australia. Adding his grandfather’s WWII experiences as a radio operator in the South Pacific to these travels gave Meiburg plenty of fodder for the songs of The Golden Archipelago, in which he weaves these times and places together with common feelings of wonder, grief, and defiance. The Golden Archipelago opens with the first strains of the anthem of Bikini Atoll, sung by Bikinians in exile on the islet of Kili, where they’ve lived since atomic tests left their home uninhabitable. It’s a fitting introduction to the gentle, eerie “Meridian”, with its depiction of an air raid on an island garrison. From there, Shearwater take us on an island-hopping journey of spectacular contrasts, from the distant heights of “Landscape at Speed” to the snowy expanses of “Hidden Lakes”, from the manic, shuddering confines of “Corridors” to the isolated vistas of “Castaways”. It’s an album of lofty goals and great risk, but Shearwater have never been afraid to dream in widescreen. Like Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, or Pink Floyd’s polarizing opus The Final Cut, The Golden Archipelago’s beautifully and strangely-wrought musical textures summon a majesty, drama, and individuality that few current records attain, or even attempt. The band worked for months with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Black Mountain, Polyphonic Spree, Explosions in the Sky) to capture the thrilling dynamics that have always marked their live performances, burnished by subtle orchestrations and cascades of mallet percussion. The results are singular, revelatory, and demand to be appreciated as a whole. Islands under siege, islands of impenetrable solitude, islands of the world and islands of the mind - all are here in The Golden Archipelago, whose shores and reefs flicker and beckon, even as they crumble under rising seas.


Rook

Rook
ole-777 CD/LP
Street Date: June 3, 2008

Hailed as "almost impossibly majestic and beautiful" (NPR "album of the year"), Shearwater's Palo Santo (2007, Matador), a suite of ethereal but oddly disquieting art-rock songs loosely centered around the life and death of singer Christa Paffgen (aka Nico), marked the Texan quartet's debut on the national stage. Several publications, including The New York Times, named it one of the year's best, and the band's singular combination of sonic abandon and restraint, spun around the soaring, otherworldly voice of part-time ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg, drew comparisons to late-period Talk Talk and both the lovely and anxious moments of Eno's early solo work.

This year's much-anticipated Rook takes the band into realms both richer and stranger. Though a similarly haunted, elegaic mood - punctuated by flashes of dread and menace - pervades the album, Rook is its own animal, at once more accessible (the near-title track, "Rooks", anchored by Thor Harris' thunderous kick drum, a booming organ, and a stately trumpet line, could almost be mistaken for radio-friendly) and more accomplished than its predecessor, with a depth and grandeur that seem improbably packed into the album's tidy 35 minutes. Squalls of feedback have largely given way to sudden gusts of strings and woodwinds, though the band's fondness for unusual instrumentation remains intact - harp, hammer dulcimer, and a curiously carved metal box all take featured roles. Each song is a mini-epic, from the in-medias-res opening of "On the Death of the Waters" to the pounding (but drumless) urgency of "Leviathan, Bound", the abrupt rock of "Century Eyes", the crystalline depths and heights of "I Was a Cloud" and "The Snow Leopard", and the final, elegant flourish of "The Hunter's Star". Rook is unlike any other album you'll hear this year - or any year. It has the vividness and ineffability of a waking dream, the strange beauty and internal logic of a fairy tale, and above all, evokes a vanishing world that may or may not be our own.





Palo Santo: Expanded Edition
2CD, 2LP, DA
April 10, 2007

Shearwater has transformed itself to the point of reinvention on Palo Santo, the band's fourth album. The first Shearwater release to be made up entirely of songs by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg, Palo Santo resembles previous Shearwater albums only incidentally. It's a thrilling, paradoxical record—icily warm, welcoming and threatening, sloppy and immaculate—and one which NPR called "impossibly majestic and beautiful" in naming it the best record of 2006.

The austere folk that was a trademark of previous Shearwater records makes periodic appearances in Palo Santo, but thorny forests of static and distortion have sprouted up to occasionally obscure it. The band also channels previously unheard influences; the driving staccato piano of "Seventy Four, Seventy Five" recalls early John Cale, "La Dame Et La Licorne" suggests Talk Talk covering "Madman Across the Water", "Failed Queen" takes on the Incredible String Band and Meddle-era Pink Floyd. "White Waves" uncorks a swaggering and impressively heavy electric guitar riff, while "Sing, Little Birdie" might be some forgotten 78 of an old standard, warbling through a morphine haze. Some of the record's more disorienting soundscapes could inhabit the same strange continent as the Cale-produced classic Desertshore by Nico, whose life inspired each song on Palo Santo.

Meiburg and Will Sheff, who began their collaboration as members of the critically lauded Okkervil River, founded Shearwater in 2001 as an outlet for quieter songs on which the two were working, but it wasn't long before Shearwater turned into something else. Shearwater's debut, The Dissolving Room, introduced Meiburg's now ex-wife Kimberley Burke on upright bass; shortly after, drummer and vibraphonist Thor Harris joined. The addition of multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper plus tours and support dates with the Mountain Goats, Akron/Family and Blonde Redhead hardened Shearwater from a casual ensemble into a tightly focused rock band. Subsequent albums Everybody Makes Mistakes and Winged Life and the EP Thieves have found Meiburg's elegant melodies and striking voice increasingly at the center.

Given that this is the first Shearwater record on which Meiburg's is the only voice singing lead, it's surprising how varied the vocals on Palo Santo are. Far from a standard-issue indie-rock mumbler, Meiburg's expressive voice leaps with grace. The lyrics start out clear and direct, but soon become abstract and indecipherable; there's a comparable tension in the instrumentation, where antique organs cozy up against a quartet of harmonized shortwave radios, and arpeggiated banjos battle the world's most hideous-sounding fuzz bass. Arrangements, too, crystallize into perfect harmony only to be cracked open again by dissonance. There seems to be some kind of narrative thread, but it's broken, frayed, frozen, with a persistent sense of mystery.
This 2007 Matador release is a completely refurbished 2-disc version of the original 2006 Misra CD. Five of the original 11 tracks have been entirely re-recorded, and the second disc includes four new songs (including the Skip James cover "Special Rider Blues") and demo versions of four Palo Santo tracks. There is also new artwork and deluxe packaging. Shearwater will have a CD of all-new material in early 2008.

“One of the year’s best rock albums...These 11 flickering — and hummable — songs tell a desperate but not quite decipherable story.”
—New York Times

"This is a chilling release, epic in both reach and accomplishment...one of the finest records to be released in recent memory."
—PopMatters