In a move that could be described as inspired , risky , foolhardy even mercenary the first thing Shearwater did on signing for indie juggernaut label "Matador" was to re-release their last album -2006,s Palo Santo Their previous albums were all on the tiny "Fargo" label and mined an exquisite blend of rustic melancholy. However this re-release is not all it seems. The band have re-recorded five of the songs off the original album and thrown in an extra disc of demo's for good measure . Fans of the band who already own Palo Santo will have to decide whether they really need another version of this album in their lives . I would suggest they do- if only for the demo's. Anyone who doesn't already own Pala Santo really should buy it .Really rather quickly if you don't mind , as it is, as is usual with this band a work of unequivocal genius.
Shearwater started as a side project for Will Sheff and Jonathon Meiburg , both of folk rock band Okkervil River. Sheff stills plays in the band but Shearwater is now Meiburgs venture and that's fitting as it's his cracked extraordinarily emotive vocals that give the music much of it's dejected power and crumpled dignity. Take opening song "La Dame Et La Licorne"( A song that reminds me of "Spirit of Eden" Talk Talk) which is ushered in on lonely piano and some background discordant hum and virtually mumbled low key vocals before Meiburg suddenly howls "Bring back my boy " and you are shocked out of the spatial reverie like an electric eel just fell in your lap. The song then subsumes back to the delicate piano and low key atmospherics but it's a precursor for just how dissonant the album will become at times and the awesome power in Meiburgs voice .
"Red Sea , Black Sea" is based around some lovely banjo and interestingly the version on the demo's disc is superior to the re-recorded one with a more assertive vocal and an arrangement that allows the melody to breathe. The songs resound with tales of love, death, children , war, hope and fear and whether they are couched in intemperate sounds and acerbic textures -"Seventy Four ,Seventy Five" "Johnny Viola" and "White Waves" or more familiar desperate but lovely ballads like the title track ,"Nobody" , the lilting "Sing Little Birdie" or even "Failed Queen" which skirts the post rock territory stalked by bands like Bark Psychosis or Scorn they are performed superbly by musicians entirely at ease with either style and any in-between . Similarly "Hail Mary " which alternates loud, quiet with Slint like finesse ."Going Is Song" is an ethereal spectre of a song , dissipating on tendrils of guitar and organ and but held earthbound by tolling percussion .
The extra disc does contain a couple of rather superfluous instrumentals but the bereft "My Only Boy" makes the extra disc worthwhile all on it's own and the alternate versions of songs on disc one are worth hearing but "Red Sea, Black Sea " apart are overshadowed by the re-recorded versions which are more assured and seem to fit in better with the albums tones and ambience . Other listeners may disagree but no one their right mind could argue that this isn't music that deserves to be heard.
So to answer the questions I posed at the start of the review . Is it inspired? Yes, but it was a great album anyway . Is it risky? Maybe commercially as many fans will already own this album and may not fancy forking out for what they perceive to be the same album again (which sort of answers the mercenary charge I would say) but artistically it,s a triumph .Foolhardy .....no way it,s a great album .One of last years best , even better this year. In fact the only question that still bugs me about Shearwater is -what is it with this band and birds ?