This is a lovely album from start to finish. I came across this band after seeing Okkervil River in concert and liking them rather a lot. Shearwater, for those who don't know, are an offshoot of that band - a collaboration between Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff - ostensibly making 'quieter' music than the Okkervils. Though it's now just Meiburg without Sheff I believe.
I really like the way that this music builds. I must admit a fondness for lo-fi and this is hardly that. But the layering and production of this is lovely. The songs and the music are designed for precision engineering rather than being thrown out off the cuff. But if you want your music multi-layered and highly engineered it doesn't get much better than this. This is music that's been thought through - a lot. I see other reviewers have written about how this comes together so well as an album and I agree wholeheartedly. very well thought through. I know it's a cliche but there really are no 'filler' tracks here. Beautifully produced and Meiburg's voice hangs the songs together fabulously.
It's a shame in a way that this will no doubt be largely ignored by the music-buying public. A shame but give it a try yourself, well worth it.
I have been lucky this year to find some pretty remarkable albums from directions I don't normally travel and I can't quite recall how I came by The Golden Archipelago, but having reached the album I am captivated to the point of going through the my seventh replay within two days. The restlessness of the music reflects the ocean and the sky, combining with the soaring vocals of Jonathan Meiburg in songs varying between gentle and reflective and stirringly angry result in what must be for me the album of 2010 and that is against some quite very impressive opposition. The 10 folk before me have said it all, but I just had to add my voice to approval and appreciation of this stunning work. I've intended in other instances to collect other works of bands new to me, in this case it will not be just a back-burner sort of aim, but a firm resolve. Excellent!
Expectation is everything. Whether it's a book, film or record, eagerly awaiting a release from someone you revere is a mixture of hoping for the best and dreading the worst-the follow up to something you loved that not only comes as a massive disappointment but turns you off the thing you loved in the first place...
I purchased Rook (the previous Shearwater album) solely on account of an impressive score on Metacritic (not an infallible method of selection as i have found out on a number of occasions)and, after several listens, i realised that it was not only the best album of the year of its release (2008), but for me one of the best albums of that decade-whatever that decade was called....
I bought and received The Golden Archipelago resigned to the fact it would be a massive let down, playing it almost as an after thought. The first playing of it appeared to confirm my doubts, nothing much to get excited about. The next day i played it in the car a couple of times, a couple of tracks seemed to be Ok. I got home and played it some more. You can see where this is going- after about five listens to the album in full i became aware that this was in fact an absolute masterpiece, i can only liken it to Radioheads In Rainbows and Antics by Interpol as an album that slowly but surely reveals itself as a work of genius, rewarding the listener who sticks with it with the greatest of prizes-a record that will grace their sound systems for years to come.
When Will Sheff branched out from Okkervil River in 2001 in order to exorcise the need for "quieter material", probably neither he nor fellow riverman Jonathan Meiburg foresaw their Shearwater sideshow nestling on equal terms with their beloved day job in the future.
Nevertheless, a few years later, the sprawling and magnificently indulgent Palo Santo plucked the pair's endeavours from obscurity to win them critical plaudits. Its successor, Rook, confirmed the streak amid equally gushing praise, and The Golden Archipelago is now looking like following suit even though Sheff has now returned to Okkervil River full time.
The equal parts epic and introspective folk-rock that Meiburg has at his fingers is enviable in any guise, and his dramatic vocal is again striking, lacing the The Golden Archipelago project together with sufficiently unhinged and pining baritones in places, falsetto led laments in others.
The album opens in Dawntreader-like opulence as "Meridian" swells, emerging from a frosty fog. Its soft but determined percussion provides urgency. Its piano echoes are clean and crisp. Next, "Black Eyes" is a rousing moment of power, a challenge laid not to the elements but seemingly by them. The widescreen nature of the track and corroborating battle cry put forth by Meiburg hint at Sunset Rubdown's sense of epic, the nymph-like backing choir duly shiver and shy in compliment.
Elsewhere, the results aren't quite as stirring but still play their support role well, twinkling and lapping as appropriate. However, the pace is quickened for the galloping "Corridors", which crashes amid Meiburg's dynamic straining. He pleas, expounds and emotes in wide-eyed reverence. The climax of "God Made Me" reprises these crashing waves, and "Castaways" hits with surging power. Meiburg here fights the good fight as the menacing percussion evokes a brewing storm and distant thunder. The calm though is duly restored by "An Insular Life", an altogether more soothing offering that paints an idyllic existence on far flung shores. The Golden Archipelago exits gently, crying out of shot with the effectively melancholic "Missing Islands".
Following an aquatic theme, and buoyed by promotional dossiers consisting of photos of remote islands, it was clear The Golden Archipelago was never going to be an average collection of superficial platitudes. And Meiburg does not disappoint, providing sufficient anchor against a rising tide of ankle-biting contemporaries.
Shearwater have created a serious album and one dealt with beautifully. There are few entry points to the album's depths except at the opener "Meridian", and few exits except at its closing moment. The Golden Archipelago flows from beginning to end majestically, its water cool and powerful, waters in which it is more than easy to be swept away.
Shearwater are an exceptional and extraordinary band. What was essentially a side project for Jonathan Meiburg from the wonderful Okkervil River and from fellow resident genius Will Sheff has mutated into one of the most unique bands in rock music. Since 2001 they have over three wonderful albums created some of the most beautiful, dense, sonic and baroque rock music to grace our earlobes.
Anyone who previously listened to the astounding "On the death of Waters" from the previous album the hugely praised "Rook" will hear something utterly unique and powerful since Meiburg is both a brilliant songwriter and has one of the richest voices this side of Jeff Buckley. Ditto the showstopper that is the song the "The Hunters Star" and seek out Meiburgs tour de force vocal on "Fierce Little Lark" on the Daytrotter sessions.
The new Shearwater album "the Golden Archipelago" has therefore a daunting pedigree to build upon and it would be imagined that "upping his game" is by no means an easy task for Meiburg. Yet the "Golden Archipelago" is by far the most complete work that he and his fellow band members have constructed not least of all since it has a much fuller and more brilliant sound. Indeed throughout the wonderfully named Thor Harris on drums should also be recognised for what is a truly bravado performance.
The album is based on the theme of remote islands and waters. It starts with "Meridan" a barely-audible pacific island chant that evolves into Meiburg's solemn vocals to the backing of a pulsing and atmospheric song which is so fragile it could break. It is an album full of highlights, but let us not lose the fact that the album is essentially a narrative whole and as such all parts royally reward and this is multiplied when listened to in its entirety. "Black Eyes" is brilliant but almost disconcerting on the first few listens. It is possibly the most rock orientated song on the album with a harsh vocal underpinned by a piano and drums working in perfect union. The initially gentile acoustic "God made me" has Meiburg's haunting vocal building throughout to a performance of epic power. I had a lump in my throat when I listened to the raw emotion of "Uniforms".
"Runners in the sun" with its yearning melody reminiscent of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" is superb and a outright classic and then there is "Hidden Lakes". If you love music do not deprive yourself of this song. Its gentle piano coda slowly stirs into a song of classical beauty. You realize the limitations of the recent Midlake album when you listen to this. Nothing on "Courage of Others" comes anywhere near to the majesty of this song. The author Norman Maclean once spoke of being "haunted by waters" and as a piece of music "Hidden Lakes" gives this phrase living expression and it approaches poetry. "Castaways" is an excellent choice for a single while "Corridors" shows the versatility of the band to switch from fragility to a rock swirl of real force. "Missing Islands" gently closes the album by which time the listener will have been exposed to an aural assault of such beauty and raw power that it could generate fusion energy.
Not since Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden" has an album blown me away with its impact like "The Golden Archipelago". A warning some may find it too grandiose but for most its sheer depth will immerse you and it will require repeated and joyful exploration. Shearwater are an astonishing collective of musicians, with a singer who is without peer. They have created their masterpiece and begs the question where is that wretched six star when you need it?
The human singing voice is an odd thing, and the more distinctive it is, the more possible it is for the listener to be turned off. I don't know why I like the voices of Michael Stipe, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young and Mark E Smith but not those of Paul Weller, Damien Rice, John Darnielle or Chris Martin. Lots of others do. Aurally, we must all be wired up differently.
Jonathan Meiburg's voice is certainly distinctive. One friend said he sounds like a singing vicar. Another, that it's a cross between Jake Thackeray and a choirboy. They both hate it and can't get into the songs because of it. Personally, I love it! It's an open-throated voice, lilting and echoey, and works perfectly with the songs on the Golden Archipelago, which are like a series of secular hymns to the wonder of nature.
The melodies have that enviable quality of being fresh yet instantly memorable, as though they were always there, just waiting to be sung. The lyrics are simple yet moving. The arrangements are outstanding, sometimes loud and frenetic, sometimes sweeping and gentle. All the songs are short, perfectly constructed and never outstay their welcome. Listening to them is, for me, like passing through a gallery filled with wonderful photographs that capture the beauty of various landscapes as well as the photographer's response to them.
Meridian, Landscape at Speed, Hidden Lakes, Runners of the Sun... - the titles of the songs sum it up, and I love every one. If you like bands like the Acorn, the Besnard Lakes, the National, or Okkervil River - which Shearwater splintered from - you will love this album. So long as you can get on with that voice.
Agree with other reviewers here - this album is not immediate, but then in retrospect I don't think Rook was either - it just feels like the tunes from that album are ingrained into my life after so many plays over the last 2 years. My initial response to this was that it wasn't as strong, but 2 weeks in and it has caught hold. There is so much power balanced with fragility in The Golden Archipeligo that this even more than their other albums sounds like the successor to late period Talk Talk. Meiburg's voice is getting better all the time, and the live performances are becoming even tighter and more accomplished this year. This album really does work as a whole themed performance piece, and the beautiful alternative extra tracks on various digital formats are also worth picking up too.
This is an album that takes you on a journey. It is by turns epic, grandiloquent, elegaic. Powerfully sung, this is a widescreen folk/rock opus. Touches of early Peter Gabriel at times (to my ears anyway). It has a timeless quality. This is full blooded, evocative, and already sounds like a classic.