This is amazingly the fifth album by Jonathan Meiburg's solo project Shearwater, a band so under the radar they had pretty much gone unnoticed here in the UK, apart from a small feature in the much missed independent music magazine, Comes With A Smile, way back in 2004. Even in the US it was only really with last year's Palo Santo that the band garnered wider recognition, with the album acquiring enthusiastic reviews from the likes of the New York Times, Pitchfork and US music magazine Magnet; and provided the first indications that this solo project could outshine the music of his other band, Okkervil River, which he has only recently quit. Shearwater were formed in 2001, as as an outlet for the quieter and more introspective songs of Meiburg and Okkervil co-founder Will Sheff, with both bands running simultaneously for much of this decade. Sheff shared the vocals on the bands first three albums, up until 2004's Winged Life, but has since taken more of an `instrumental' back seat in the band.
I only really sat up and took notice of Shearwater's music last year, via a review in Plan B magazine of Matador's expanded and remixed reissue of their excellent Palo Santo album, which hinted at something special and very different from what I'd expected. A sound akin to late-period Talk Talk, Radiohead, David Sylvian, and even the Buckley's (Tim and Jeff).
Unlike the last album which clocked in at an expansive 80 minutes (including a second CD of outtakes and extras), Rooks comes in at a meagre 39 minutes. But boy, what a 39 minutes. This is some of the most dynamic, atmospheric and exquisite music I've heard in a very long time. Opener On The Death Of The Water, starts in quiet hushed tones with just Meiburg, his piano and a gently-plucked harp, but then explodes as Neil Young-esque overdriven guitars, brass and pounding drums burst into the mix, and then disappear almost as quickly as they arrived. The track is only just over three minutes long but feels like you'd been listening to an 8-minute epic. If there is a criticism of this album, it is that you keeping wanting more from every single track!
Much has been made of how much Meiburg's vocals are in debt to Talk Talk's Mark Hollis; the subtle use of strings, woodwind, percussion, harps and glockenspiels on this album act as a subtle, yet constant reminder of the expansive soundscapes that Talk Talk's created on their stone-cold classic Spirit of Eden. Just check out the beautifully majestic The Hunter's Star, which closes the album, for a brief reminder of why Hollis and his music is so sorely missed, and why Shearwater have so ably stepped up to fill that hole.
So is this record more than just an aide memoire to one the finest unsung British bands of 80s? You can't escape from the reference points, but this is a beautiful record that stands-up in its own right, and generously deserves the applause that it has been receiving from some of the top US webzines. PopMatters claims, "Not only is Rook destined to be named one of 2008's favourites, but it could be one of the best albums for years to come", while Delusions Of Adequacy stated "With Rook they have fashioned an album that is melodic, tender, outstanding but above all, captivating. One thing is for sure, this is one of the best albums of the year." You bet it is!