Thursday, May 29th, 2008
Photo via MySpace
Prior to 2006, the line on Shearwater was that they were the gentler side-project to Okkervil River on account of the shared principals in Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff. Certainly, this wasn’t exactly correct as Shearwater had existed as long as Okkervil and it didn’t give the band the sufficient credit, as the songwriting on Shearwater records was often as good as anything that made any given Okkervil record – this was no cast-off clearing house. But as far as elevator pitches went, it was close enough.
And in 2006, everything changed. Firstly, Sheff withdrew from the band both to concentrate on Okkervil’s rising fortunes but also to allow Meiburg’s muse to stand on its own and after debating a name change, Shearwater would take everyone – even their long-time fans – by surprise with the release of Palo Santo. It was a dense and enigmatic thing, its brew of avant-garde folk and rock as beautiful as it was harrowing and easily one of the best and most challenging records released that year. And needless to say, one of the most overlooked.
But rather than allow Palo Santo to remain lost in the shuffle, it was given a second life by the band and their new home at Matador Records when it was re-released last year in partially re-recorded and fully remastered form as Palo Santo: The Expanded Edition, an exercise as eye-opening as the original record. It placed Palo Santo not as a defining statement, but a transitional piece. You could hear the band, honed by relentless touring, pushing at the creative boundaries of the songs that they’d already outgrown but weren’t quite prepared to leave behind.
Which brings us to Rook, their new album out June 3. Again, lineup changes were in effect as longtime multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper left the band, and again, the band have taken previous expectations – no matter how high they were set by past efforts – and transcended them. If Palo Santo was a record shrouded in mystery, Rook is a record that sheds that cloak to fully reveal itself and yet as much as you can take it in, it remains as inscrutable as ever.
Initial impressions are that it’s an even less accessible document than its predecessor, but as with Palo Santo, it does eventually come together in eminently satisfying fashion and the listener’s perseverance is rewarded many times over. Between the elegiac beauty of bookends “On The Death Of The Waters” and “The Hunter’s Star”, there are songs like like “Rooks” which are immediate but not to be mistaken for pop songs, instead making their impression by virtue of their drama and power, the relatively straight rock of “Century Eyes” and the sprawling and soaring drama of “The Snow Leopard”. Rook is unequivocally epic and grand with a deliberate if cryptic sense of purpose, and yet manages to clock in at under 40 minutes.
It’s tempting to suggest that Rook is the defining record for Shearwater, the album that will for years to come be held up as their watershed moment but considering that the only constant for the band in recent years has been constant metamorphosis, there’s no reason to believe that they could come up with something even greater the next time out.
Austin360 has an extensive feature on the band while Matablog presents a thoroughly unexpected use of Palo Santo‘s “Red Sea, Black Sea” that should absolutely be made the song’s official music video. Shearwater will set out on tour in a couple weeks and roll into the Horseshoe on June 23 with Frog Eyes and Evangelicals. There’s also some videos of Meiburg wearing his ornithologist hat whilst traipsing around the Falkland Islands here. Update: The whole of the album is now streaming on the band’s MySpace.
Pitchfork talks to Aaron Dessner of The National about their contribution to the forthcoming Red Hot indie-centric AIDS awareness compilation as well as goings-on with the band, who are currently on tour with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse, a bill which will be at the Molson Amphitheatre next Sunday, June 8.
San Francisco’s Film School are coming back to town for a show at Sneaky Dee’s on July 22. They’re still touring in support of last year’s Hideout, from which they’ve just released another MP3 and video. The Daily Iowan also has an interview.