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Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago

  by Anthony Middleton

published: 19 / 2 / 2010

Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago
Label: Matador Records
Format: CD


Fertile latest album from Shearwater, who increasingly draw comparisons with Talk Talk and Mark Hollis in their passion and ability

Anyone who has seen Shearwater live will attest to the breathtaking talent, beauty and experimental brilliance on display. Most obvious is the emotionally athletic lead singer Jonathon Meiburg, whose voice swings around from falsetto to more controlled tones. At times overwrought, he can be playful and full of humour; totally committed to the band's vision. And what a band. Inventing their own instruments, basses shredded like metal lead guitars, members flitting around the stage casually playing musical chairs with each other’s instruments; they are a mature, serious group of musicians. The total live musical experience has been hinted at on their previous albums, notably 2008’s 'Rook'. On 'The Golden Archipelago', however, they have captured, in body and soul, the sheer emotional force of their shows. The passion, the changes of gear and the prodigious ability are here to behold. Much compared to Talk Talk, Mark Hollis should start to feel he is being paid the compliment. 'The Golden Archipelago' is a concept album, a much abused term, though the idea that a group of musicians may step inside a studio to records more ten songs and not have at least some kind of loose concept is obviously ludicrous. Shearwater thread a theme around the idea of island life, so they are not asking us to buy into a far fetched narrative or a group of characters. No Ivor the Engine Driver here. This is no idle curiosity or conceit either. While some bands may plunder literature or current affairs for a theme, this is by-product of years of work by Jonathon Meiburg who has worked as a researcher into remote communities, living in places as far flung as the Falklands, the Chatham Islands, Baffin Island and Tierra del Fuego. Much of 'The Golden Archipelago' follows on as a natural progression from Rook, the differences are not startling and some songs could certainly be interchanged. The albums opens with 'Meridian' which begins with a recording of the displaced people of Bikini Atoll singing their national anthem. The song then trots along, swelling with the story of an air raid on a Pacific island inspired by the experiences of Meiburg's grandfather in World War Two. 'Black Eyes' is then jarring and disharmonic. Clattering along as Meiburg’s vocals are counter pointed by a crashing accompaniment. 'Landscape at Speed' is more brooding, creeping by with Meiburg more weary. My only caveat is the difficulty I had in deciphering lyrics. This is something I am always ambivalent about; lyrics, even the best, even Dylan, are often best when only half heard, open to interpretation, more about the onomatopoeia than about any messages unequivocally delivered. Still, a hardly exhaustive search of the internet turned up the lyrics to my favourite song, 'Castaways'. Given that Shearwater do not sink as low as proselytising, preferring to be obtuse and suggestive, this was pointless as the recorded song delivered infinitely more than an online lyric sheet surrounded by ads for Viagra. 'Hidden Lakes', which they previewed last year at the Luminaire in London, is as delicate and intricate as the following 'Corridors' is overblown and breakneck. 'Uniforms' is a slight nod to the self appointed kings of the concept album, Pink Floyd, though this may only have occurred to me as their record company compared 'The Golden Archipelago' with (or is that compared to, I never know) 'The Final Cut'. The previously mentioned 'Castaways' is the heart of the album, not only in the sense of it being most accessible, but also in the high drama, a steady crescendo of pumping drums and bass in which Meiburg’s vocals demonstrate their greatest strength which is weakness or falsetto vulnerability. The song feels like a conclusion to the album, with the last three songs being an afterword. You may have gathered by now that I think this is a rather splendid album. It may not be perfect, but 'Sergeant Pepper' has 'When I’m Sixty Four' – and no, I’m not saying it’s that good. Shearwater may always ply their trade on a musical backwater, but what a rich and fertile place theirs is.

Track Listing:-
1 Meridian
2 Black Eyes
3 Landscape At Speed
4 Hidden Lakes
5 Corridors
6 God Made Me
7 Runners Of The Sun
8 Castaways
9 An Insular Life
10 Uniforms
11 Missing Islands
12 Anak Renata
13 False Sentinel
14 Silver Bodies

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Interview (2007)
Shearwater - Interview
After being dropped by their record label, Shearwater have just re-released their 2006 fourth album, 'Palo Santo', on the larger Matador Records with five songs re-recorded and a CD of extra tracks. John Clarkson speaks to front man Jonathan Meiburg about it

live reviews

Scala, London, 3/4/2012
Shearwater - Scala, London, 3/4/2012
Chris O'Toole watches still underappreciated dark folk rockers Shearwater play a superb set in their biggest gig to date yet at the Scala in London
St Giles Church, London, 22/11/2008
Bush Hall, London, 17/9/2008

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