I don't know whether my discernment radar has been more highly tuned, or whether it's just been one of those years, but 2004 has produced a plethora of truly stunning albums. Iron and Wine, Gravenhurst, Lucky Jim, Laura Viers, and now Winged Life by Shearwater. Dubbed "Chamber pop music" by one critic it certainly possesses a keen sense of fragile acute melody, but is far too brilliantine and brittle in it's arrangements to be classed as pop, and far too gorgeously aqueous in structure to compare to something as stately as chamber music. If pushed I'd call it lava music. After all what's lava but melted rock. This music glows with warmth but has an irresistible free flowing quality that recalls bands like Ar Kane, and later Talk Talk while prowling the same wracked emotional landscape as American Music Club. Whatever spurious labels you hang on this music, one thing for certain. It's superb. I suppose it will labelled as Alt -country by most with it's use of traditional instrumentation such as banjo_"Whipping Boy", lap steel-"Kind" and "Wedding Bells" and violin -"Hush" and "Set Table". but there's a contemporary ascetic at the heart of this album that eschews that particular genre, at least to my mind. The real crowning glory of these songs is Jonathan Meiburgs vocals which add a quavering layer of suspense. He has the happy knack of being able to stretch his voice from a trembling lower register yearning to a spiralling on the edge yodel whilst never losing the resonant heart of the song. At the conclusion of the wondrous "St Marys Walk" a desperate raw edge enters his voice and it makes the song even more affecting. Only one song on this album is less than convincing. "The Convert" sees Meiburg in a rush to match his vocals to the tumble down acoustic guitars and it doesn't suit him. Elsewhere magical moments abound. The vibraphone at the end of "My Good Deed", the glistening majesty of "Sealed" which segues from a nascent ballad to a primordial howl of clashing chords, the glorious rolling piano on "The World in 1984", the stately almost hymn like verse on "(I've got a )right to Cry" allied to it's swooping chorus. If this album doesn't feature very highly in those end of the year polls then they have no credibility for this is a truly wondrous album in a year of wondrous albums. It, s grabbed me like" California" by A.M.C. did way back when. It's that good. If you'll forgive the weedy puns, this album is shear brilliance, in fact it fly's.
The lead protagonist of Shearwater is Will Shelf, an ornithologist and keyboardist with Texan indie rockers Okkervil River. Winged Life is the third album by his own band and it is a reflective, wistful record about being an adult. Songs deal with themes such as the break up of your circle of friends as they all go off and start families or the realisation that you have to play with the cards you've been dealt or the pleading to be given a chance to shine.
Highlights are Whipping Boy with its compelling banjo picking and percussion echoing Shelf's vocals. the melancholic keyboard and strum of The Kind, and the metronomic cynicism of The Makeover or the Convert. This is a great introspective record, perfect for a wet Sunday morning nursing a mild hangover.
If you read the above reviews you might just run away with the idea that this album is virtually flawless. Well, it's not. I agree with the references to Talk Talk and the ad-hoc nature of the music but, unfortunately, I never got over the fact that the singer's voice is weak. Some songs seem to have real potential but this seems to get lost in the lack of any structure or obvious direction. I was dissapointed, but if you like ramshackle music with a slightly quirky vocal overlaying it please don't let me put you off.