on 15 September 2008
As much as I like Okerville River, I believe Shearwater's new album Rook beats any of their albums hands down. Powerful and melodic Scott Walker-esq vocals blended with beautiful cinemascope haunting sounds, Rook is one of the best albums of the year with each song leaving you yearning for more. If you like them and this album, you have to see them live! They are AMAZING live. Even better than in the studio, really great band, lovely album. My stand out track is Rooks
on 3 July 2008
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!
This is a very special record, of the type that doesn't seem to come along too often - self-contained, mysterious, beautiful, powerful. It feels religious but isn't; it's about birds, and love, and, quite possibly, impending environmental disaster. It's short - just 38 minutes - but perfectly weighted. Essentially folk, but experimental. Bits of it rock really quite hard, other bits are almost impossibly fragile. When the horn breaks over the top of the guitars, drums, double bass, and spaceship noise in The Snow Leopard... that might be my favourite musical moment of the year.
on 11 June 2008
I have Okkervil River's "The Stage Names" and apart from "Unless it Kicks" I wasn't overly impressed. I have been meaning to check out this evocatively named offshoot for quite a while and finally got round to it following generally favourable reviews of this new one.
The opener is fairly decent but then I was a little dismayed by the title track. Its an "epic" song that seems very concious of the fact that its trying to be "epic". A bit like an actor thats trying too hard and forgetting that the audience don't want to know that he's acting. A similar track would be John Mile's "Music". Not exactly pretentious but overdone.
Luckily the album improves from thereon and the next six tracks are remarkably solid, varied and entertaining. Leviathan Bound becomes the new opener, Home Life rumbles on like a thunderstorm receding into the distance before the short and almost violent Lost Boys. Then comes the rocking Century Eyes, the gorgeous I Was A Cloud has a great hook in the vocals and then this group of songs finishes up with South Col which conveys a feeling of a high mountain, partly obscured by snow laden clouds, using keening guitar sounds and plenty of space.
I'm not too sure about Snow Leopard. At first listen it seemed like a bit of filler, but that's an early impression.
Meiburg's vocals are surprisingly atonal, and show a remarkable similarity to Scott Walker. However he saves the only genuine melody for the closing track "The Hunter's Star". Which is actually my favourite on the album.
The whole thing is much more of an English Folk album rather than the Americana you would expect. I'm rather taken with it.
As a footnote I've gone back to "The Stage Names" and have found it a lot better than I remember.
on 21 July 2009
Rook is the album of 2008. The songs are all-of-a-piece, with the unity of sound reminding of 'Astral Weeks'. This is a far, far stronger album than say, Shearwater's 'Winged Life' or 'Everybody Makes Mistakes'. Those albums had both flaky vocals and tunes in comparison. Sometimes his vocals are hard to listen to in light of how he sounds now. It seems so tentative and undercooked compared to the amazing Rook.
That voice captures the listener as the earlier Scott Walker's did. Singing the telephone directory would be fine with such an awe-inspiring instrument. Scott Walker may be far, far the superior in terms of lyrics ('Scott 3') but the voice and music of Shearwater still produce something first-rate. On the album, this vocal talent is more muted than hearing them live. Many bands can't bring forth the perfect take that they made in the studio, whereas this band produces a better take of an excellent album live, without the restraint of production.
After my last review of a Shearwater album -the expansive double "Paulo Santo " - I enquired what is it with this band and birds. .....well doh! I've since discovered that front man Jonathon Meiburg is a keen ornithologist which I suppose was pretty obvious when you think about it. Anyway Rooks is their new one and as well as keeping the ornithological theme going it's more of their tender wracked powerfully affecting music with Meiburgs quavering falsetto once again the palpable emotional core.
Rook is their fifth album and if criticism is to be levelled in the direction of this band it,s that those five albums have seen little divergence, over the course of those releases, from the first. So yes Rook is more of the same though when you talking about music as invariably sublime as Shearwater it would be churlish to complain too much ..if at all.
So while the albums thematic hub is once again nature through allegorical meanings or less obtuse references it also centres around silvery guitars chords or forlorn stretched piano augmented by banjo, organ, electric, lap steel , vibraphone , horns, harp , clarinet , glockenspiel and wraithlike strings. But there is deep and noticeable differences between each track which makes Rook compelling listening and answers I suppose the charge that each album fails to move on from the previous one. Why should they when every album offers such multi faceted delights
Accordingly "Homelife" is stately chamber pop, and "Century Eyes" has stomping rock chords, ardent percussive wallops and a vocal yowl that would startle police horses. "I Was A Cloud" is a delicate ballad with notes floating like dust motes in bright sunshine leading onto the atonal instrumental strains of "South Col". "The Snow Leopard" is the sort of dramatic compelling song Shearwater excel at , showcasing again why Meiburg is such a terrific vocalist . The graceful polite "The Hunters Star" has a truly lovely melodic dip but my favourite track is opener "On The Death Of Waters" which reminds me of the fantastic post rockers Rex whose album "C" is like the Shearwater album they never made . The way the guitars and brass crash in for the last third is a real sit up and take notice moment. The title track with it,s memorable chromatic jangle and fleshy rolling bass is like prime REM , though the brass recalls Calexico. "Leviathan Bound" has cinematic strings over twinkling glockenspiel and urgent piano .
I would say that Rook is,nt quite as immediate as their previous albums , but in the end it,s every bit as good .They are a remarkable , consistent , assured , persuasive band and a bafflingly over looked one as well. To make five albums as good as the ones Shearwater have produced is worthy of the highest praise. Another year , another tremendous Shearwater album , another reference to birds. That mystery( if indeed it was ever a mystery except to me) solved the only question that remains now is.: How do they consistently create such magnificent music ? Does it really matter as long as it continues?
on 11 January 2009
This band just get better and better - and like their sister band, Okkervil River, haven't suffered from the obvious need of their lead personnel to focus on their own bands.
I was lucky enough to catch Shearwater, playing in the late tent at the End of the Road festival, where they were quite superb.
This album demands multiple plays and just gets better. 'Rooks' and 'The Snow Leopard' are highlights, but there are no weak links, in what for me is the album of 2008. References - well, Talk Talk, but this band have the stage all to themselves. Great stuff.
on 6 April 2009
Shearwater were new to me in 2008, and one of my most valued discoveries. They manage the brilliant trick of being both lush yet spare and bleak, evocative of moorlands, wild life and all the beauty and terror that these inspire. The title tune is one of the best single songs of the year, and this band beat the pants off of other, similar, overrated pretenders (yes, I'm looking at you, FF) and deliver an album that is haunting and wondrous.
I was traveling through Indochine - doing nothing - nothing much at all when I chanced across a music store and found this CD on their racks.
Being outta touch and outta place I was not expecting to find such a treasure - so recent and all - so far away from home.
So I forked out the necessary and took my foundling home - delighted.
Now I was WOW'd by Shearwater when I first discovered them some time back and over the years they have become a regular listen for me.
Each new disc being an evolutionary creation - a variation on a theme.
Nowt much wrong with that methinks.
Works of continuity and consistency - same same - but different.
Certainly no repetitive formula this.
Once home I hit the horizontal, plug in and relax - go where the music takes me.
Mesmerized and hypnotized by imagined magical soundscapes - the soundtrack to my natural world - the songs of my nature - the music of my life
All that I find calm and contemplative.
However conversely I often find myself taken to the edge of chaos and confusion, but there is pleasure to be found in the pain.
The calm before the storm followed by the sunshine after the rain.
Waves crashing to the rocks - before back-washing into the deep on the undertow.
Sweet, soured vocals and honeyed, rasping playing compliment and contrast on this recording.
Now I am sure I will miss Will Sheff - but I am not for now on this outing.
Some will try to categorize this band (or is it a collective?); Folk? Americana? Indie? - but forget it.
Why bother - they just don't need it (sic) - and to pigeon-hole them does them no justice - they are simply unique to me and my ilk - and I hope they will be to you and yours too.
Now, I don't wanna spoil a good thing but, if references need to be made to help me help you understand where I think they're coming from, then I could do a lot worse than mention King Crimson, Robert Fripp, Talk Talk, Mark Hollis, Radiohead and Sugar Ros.
I hope I am not misleading you.
Whatever - this is a fine piece of contemporary music.
Does it take me closer to Eden?
Well, I like to think so.
Shearwater began as a side project from Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Scheff back in 2001. Now on their fifth album, Shearwater is to its parent outfit as APC was to Tool - softer, more lyrical, yet in some ways wilder and less hidebound.
With his other hat on, frontman Meiburg is an ornithologist - hence the band and album names and the references to birds that abound in the lyrics. This album certainly takes flight, entrancing the listener almost from the first first few bars of deceptively subtle opener "On the Death Of the Waters". This is an album with an environmental conscience, a savage awareness of the harm men do to the landscape and to the other creatures that inhabit it. "We'll sleep until the world of man is paralysed," spits Meiburg on the angry "Rooks".
He's not always so much of a pagan firebrand, though: "The Hunter's Star" has a gently pastoral feel and on the melancholy "Home Life", his voice recalls Antony Hegarty in its smooth falsetto croon. "South Col" makes elegant use of twisted metal string harmonics, though electronic noise gives way for the most part to the subtle swirl of string, harp and woodwind. However, the no-nonsense "Century Eyes" evokes ageing eco-art-terrorist Julian Cope in his early teardrop Explodes incarnation.
The album's centrepiece is probably "The Snow Leopard". What it might lack in originality (its chord sequence and some of its atmosphere recall Radiohead's "Pyramid Song") is made up for in the sheer abandonment of Meiburg's vocal, which seems somehow both desperately sad and imbued by immense hope.