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Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' reflects on Shearwater's new album and covers record, 'Fellow Travelers'
I often find myself wishing that every band was made to record a covers album, at least once. You can learn a lot from covers – sometimes more than you can learn from a band’s own songs. The gap between original idea and the final performance of an original song is often short – rather than fully explore the song’s potential. They simply work-up the first thought that occurred. It can take a cover to truly realise a song's potential.
Take, for example, Lou Reed's 'The Power of Your Heart' – his last great song. Unsure what to do with something so sweetly sentimental, Reed's own version smothers the song with murky static and odd high-pitched effects. It sounds like he is singing the song for the first time, so unsure is his delivery. It took Peter Gabriel to record this song properly on his 'Scratch My Back' album, stripping away Reed's embarrassment and placing the naked emotion at the centre of the song. It became a highlight of both men's careers.
Of course, the covers album concept has also been responsible for some of the worst music in history – at least half by Bryan Ferry. And yet, even the stopgap albums tell us a lot. A band that can knock off a cover version over their lunch break clearly has little respect for either their audience or for pop music as an art form. Be suspicious of any musician who thinks it is acceptable to rush-release a dodgy cover.
Few modern bands are better placed to record a covers album than Shearwater, simply because Jonathan Meiburg has an unusually expressive voice – floating between a wavering falsetto not unlike Antony Hegarty or Tim Buckley and a booming Scott Walker baritone, while also able to get his lips around the multisyllabic lyric sheets (dense in natural world imagery) that have become his stock-in-trade as a songwriter. I can think of no-one else who I imagine being as equally comfortable covering Pavement or Nina Simone.
As it happens, Shearwater cover neither of those on 'Fellow Travelers', their eighth album (due for release on 26 November). Instead, they reassess ten songs by bands they have toured with during the last decade. Lou Barlow's unexpected mid-90’s hit 'Natural One' and Coldplay's 'Hurts Like Heaven' sit alongside songs from the Baptist Generals and Wye Oak, which were completely new to me.
When work began on ‘Fellow Travelers’, Meiburg was planning a short EP – something to bridge the gap between 2012’s ‘Animal Life’ and its follow-up. Enjoying themselves, Shearwater ended up with enough songs for a full album. As it neared completion, Meiburg wrote “Fellow Travelers wasn’t supposed to be a full-length record, so I’m a little surprised to admit that it’s my favourite Shearwater album so far. Somehow it slipped under the door.”
Bands often overrate the albums they most enjoy recording, and correspondingly underrate albums they found hard to make. So, it's almost needless to say that 'Fellow Travelers' is not quite Shearwater's best album – to these ears, they have still yet to top the thrillingly unpredictable 'Rook'. But, where 'Animal Life' seemed like a deliberate attempt to rein their songs into a format suitable for a wider audience and larger venues, Shearwater seem to have rediscovered their range of these covers. Without compromising the new-found skill at big throated choruses exhibited on their most recent set of original songs, the playful inventiveness that made earlier albums so enjoyable has returned.
This being an album of songs written by friends, many of those friends ended up lending a hand on the recordings. The only rule was they couldn't appear on their own songs. So, the Baptist Generals appear on the cover of Clinic's 'Tomorrow' – taking the twisted electro-folk of the original and turning it into a full-throttle alt-rock anthem. Meanwhile, Clinic's mishmash of electronics and organ lends the General's 'Fucked Up Life' an eerie sheen, which suits the disturbed lyric sheet perfectly.
As is often the case with covers, you might find yourself enjoying some of these songs more if you are not already familiar with the originals. For example, Shearwater's version of St Vincent's 'Cheerleader' loses the original's icy coldness, becoming a mid-tempo rock ballad with a memorable chorus. Perfectly enjoyable, but someone with a long relationship with the original will probably conclude that Shearwater's take on it sounds too conventional. (Not an especially big fan of St Vincent myself, I prefer the Shearwater version – but I've already read several other reviewers say the exact opposite).
Likewise, while the take on 'Hurts Like Heaven' is perfectly enjoyable, fans of Coldplay's own version will probably miss the electronic effects and slightly quicker tempo. The format of only covering songs by tour mates means that the Coldplay cover is the only truly eyebrow-raising selection here. It's a little disappointing, then, for that song to sound the most like a typical Shearwater track – and the extended instrumental phase-out is in fact the only point where the album becomes boring.
The less radio-friendly songs tend to work better, and 'Fellow Travelers' really hits its stride in its final third. An excellent duet with Sharon Van Etten on the album's only original song, 'A Wake for the Minotaur' is followed by a beautiful cover of Wye Oak's 'Mary Is Mary', before the album closes with the aforementioned 'Fucked Up Life'. It's clear that this song is particularly special to Shearwater, and they do it justice. Meiburg used to see the band perform regularly in his hometown of Austin, Texas, and this has long been one of his favourite songs. The tension in his vocal performance is a more-than-adequate tribute to his friends and to their song.
Arguably of as much interest as the music are Meiburg's sleevenotes – an essay reflecting on a decade of touring life. (Note: Can Meiburg take this article as a formal request for him to extend these into a full-length book?)
Meiburg begins with a quote from Trotsky, who coined the term that gives the album its title - “As regards a fellow traveler, the question always comes up – how far will he go?” He writes that the constant motion of touring, where you never see the same thing more than once, “makes the other bands you're travelling with seem like the only other three-dimensional beings in the world”.
As well as being a singer and songwriter, Meiburg is also an academic and naturalist. His love for the natural world shines through in many of these reminiscences – but you sense that he is an equally astute observer of human behaviour, in particular the dynamics of touring rock groups. He says that if certain members of a band break-off and choose to spend time with the other band on the tour that it is usually an indication of inter-band tension. Otherwise, bands typically decide that they will all become friends with their support act, or none of them will.
I find his observations about Coldplay – how hard they work to put on an arena show, how hard they work to make their support acts feel wanted and welcome – especially fascinating. Later, Meiburg points out that “only the really famous bands make money. The rest of us – most of us – are doing it for some other reason.” Meiburg never directly defines what that other reason might be, but this record is obviously his attempt to understand his own motivations better – through the works of others.
Ultimately, this is the paradox at the heart of a covers album. The more you listen to it, the less the songs feel like covers (a common enough effect - when I hear the 'original' of the Beatles' 'Twist and Shout', I can't help but wish for John Lennon's shredded vocal chords). Listened to after absorbing Meiburg's fascinating sleevenotes, these songs start to feel less like a compilation and more like a cohesive statement from Shearwater about how they see music, and what they are aiming to achieve as a band. I'm reminded of Kathryn Williams, whose album of covers 'Relations', restored a lagging interest in music and prompted her move into away from traditional folk stylings, and was immediately followed by two albums far more inventive than anything she had recorded before.
Shearwater began work on a new album of original compositions almost as soon as they finished this record. My prediction: it will be their best, and most inventive, work yet.