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Shearwater - Animal Joy

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 27 / 2 / 2012

Shearwater - Animal Joy
Label: Sub Pop
Format: CD


Catchy, but unsatisfactory fourth album from acclaimed Texan group, Shearwater

Shearwater have an odd history. They started as a side project of Okkervil River keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg and singer Will Sheff, and, while Meiburg set the thematic direction of the group, songwriting was split evenly. Something resembling a traditional group emerged in time for 2002’s ‘Everybody Makes Mistakes’, with the arrival of bassist Kim Burke and percussionist Thor Harris, but it was not until 2006 when Meiburg took full control of the group. By this time, Okkervil River were successful enough to demand Will Sheff full time. Backed by a wide range of guest musicians and usually a string section, Meiburg shook off Shearwater’s side project tag with a trilogy of albums that – elaborately – explored the former postgraduate ornithologist’s fascination with the natural world. They culminated in 2010’s elaborate concept album, ‘The Golden Archipelago’. By this point, no one called Shearwater a side project. Concept albums about migration patterns and life on remote islands are, of course, only going to appeal to a select minority of music fans. You got the sense that, were he to want more than just a cult-audience, Meiburg might need to change direction slightly. So ‘Animal Joy’, finds Shearwater on a new label, and for the first time, with no string section in tow. For the first time, they feel distinctly like a band – with Harris and Burke elevated to an equal status with their bandleader. Harris’ drumming had always been one of Shearwater’s trump cards, but on this album it is the defining musical characteristic. Although he remains fond of wildlife metaphors, Meiburg’s songs seem consciously simpler. The melodic flights of fancy so common on earlier albums have been reined in, and he often seems content to let Harris’ pounding rhythms pull the songs along. Don’t be fooled, though, by the band’s own claims that this is a ‘stripped down’ record. There may be fewer people playing on the songs before, but I’ve never heard Shearwater be so consistently loud before. While Meiburg’s songs had always been catchy, they generally felt far too idiosyncratic to be played on the radio. But it’s hard not to listen to a song like ‘Animal Life’ without thinking of a festival crowd, punching the air in time to the inevitable crescendo. And yet, as long as Jonathan Meiburg is singing, Shearwater will never sound too much like any other band. In younger days, his admiration for Jeff Buckley was a little too obvious, but he’s got that under control now – and his quivery falsetto makes even the simplest tune sound like its special. The effect is that ‘Animal Joy’ ends up like a North American version of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘This Is My Truth…’ – a literate, radio friendly rock band, not tied to any particular genre and carefully making sure that populist instincts don’t trump imaginative songwriting. While Shearwater will probably lose the fussiest parts of their older fanbase here, it would be unfair to say that they have shamelessly aimed for a commercially friendly sound. Unfortunately, however, ‘Animal Joy’ is not Shearwater’s best album. That’s nothing to do with the change of sound – although there are no strings, its still precisely played and carefully recorded. It’s just that, while every song on 2007’s ‘Rook’ was worth playing over and over, there are a few too many songs here that sound simply like filler. ‘Animal Joy’ is too good an album for anyone who has liked Shearwater before to ignore. Indeed, two or three tracks will make any future ‘Best of Shearwater’ compilation with ease. But, newcomers would be best advised to start with the vastly superior ‘Rook’ or ‘Palo Santo’.

Track Listing:-
1 Animal Life
2 Breaking the Yearlings
3 Dread Sovereign
4 You as You Were
5 Insolence
6 Immaculate
7 Open Your Houses
8 Run the Banner Down
9 Pushing the River
10 Believing Makes it Easy
11 Star of the Age

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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

digital downloads



Jet Plane and Oxbow (2016)
Assured eighth album from undervalued Texan-based experimental band, Shearwatar
The Golden Archipelago (2010)
The Snow Leopard EP (2008)
Rook (2008)
Winged Life (2005)

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