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Shearwater - Jet Plane and Oxbow

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 21 / 2 / 2016

Shearwater - Jet Plane and Oxbow
Label: Sub Pop
Format: CD


Assured eighth album from undervalued Texan-based experimental band, Shearwatar

The last time we heard a set of original Shearwater songs, Jonathan Meiburg gave the impression of having ever-so-slightly lost his touch. The opening title track, 'Animal Life', promised much, and remains one of Shearwater's most audaciously tuneful creations, but the rest of the album saw the extravagances of the band's 'Island Arc' trilogy cast aside, without anything compelling in their place. By Shearwater's standards, it was rather depressingly ho-hum. It may have been a coincidence, but I read the immediate follow-up album, 2013's 'Fellow Travellers' as Meiburg's attempt at a reassessment. A collection of cover versions of bands that Shearwater had toured with, it saw the band re-imagine the works of the very famous (Coldplay), the pretty famous (St Vincent, Xiu Xiu) and the admired-but-not-very-well-known (Clinic, Folk Implosion). Shearwater are a band in the latter category, who had just made an album that suggested a tilt at the tier above. Meiburg, whose own music criticism, published on the 'Talkhouse' website, shows him to be an astute observer of what makes pop musicians tick, will have known that his audience would have been waiting to see what aspects of that experiment he returned to on his own songwriting and what he abandoned. Clearly, inhabiting other band's songs convinced Meiburg that he hadn't been wrong to imagine that his band could pull off "radio friendly". But, he will have learned that for music like that to have lasting appeal, listeners have to be able to scratch below the surface. The result is a new album that perseveres in the direction that 'Animal Joy' first took the band, but now with more conviction. The record has come pre-billed as Shearwater's 'heavy' record, and in some respects, that is true. The basslines are certainly fatter and the guitars scuzzier than anything they have produced before. But, in fact, the sound as a whole is considerably more delicate, largely because of the absence of the band's longstanding drummer Thor Harris. In his place is Brian Reitzell, returning to the world of the indie-rock band after two decades contributing effects to film scores and playing with Air. So, while the album as a whole brims with an almost foreboding intent, there are regular pauses for breath, generally supplied by Reitzell. Through all this, Meiburg – whose dreamy compositions once gave the impression that he had forgotten anyone was listening – seems to be dragging the band upwards and outwards, gripped with an intensity we've not heard from him before. And, with a magnificent vibrating falsetto, Meiburg remains a truly great singer – albeit one who never sings like he knows he's a singer. No matter how many parts of the early Shearwater sound he chooses to toss overboard, his voice will always means Shearwater sound like Shearwater. That Meiburg is consciously abandoning his shtick is demonstrated by the shift in lyrical focus. In interviews, he has described this as a protest album, though it never protests against anything in particular. Meiburg has previously set in his music in the natural world (when he's not writing music or writing about music, he also writes books about birds), and the feeling here is that Meiburg has moved from writing about something he was in awe of, but could both mentally process and love, to writing about American society, something he doesn't understand and wishes he could like more. All in all, it's an upfront and boldly listenable album, that gives the immediate impression of having hidden depths. If it isn't quite Shearwater's best album ('Rook' still has that title, while one or two tracks here meander more than might), it certainly more than justifies its existence.

Track Listing:-
1 Prime
2 Quiet Americans
3 A Long Time Away
4 Backchannels
5 Filaments
6 Pale Kings
7 Only Child
8 Glass Bones
9 Wildlife in America
10 Radio Silence
11 Stray Light at Clouds Hill

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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



Animal Joy (2012)
Catchy, but unsatisfactory fourth album from acclaimed Texan group, Shearwater
The Golden Archipelago (2010)
The Snow Leopard EP (2008)
Rook (2008)
Winged Life (2005)

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