Matador, 2008

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


Will Sheff (the brilliant frontman and songwriter of Okkervil River) casts a pretty venerable shadow -- still, former Okkervil bandmate Jonathan Meiburg has forged a unique entity with Shearwater, particularly on the group’s latest disc, 2008’s acclaimed Rook. Though the band originally began as a collaboration between Sheff and Meiburg in 2001 as an outlet from their Okkervil positions, Sheff eventually lessened his role while Meiburg left Okkervil River in in 2008 to focus exclusively on Shearwater. 

On the dense, complicated, strangely lovely Rook, singer and principal songwriter Meiburg has assured that Shearwater is no longer seen as an extension of his former band. In the span of just thirty-eight minutes, Meiburg, drummer Thor Harris, celloist Kimberly Burke, and myriad guest instrumentalists all come together to create one of those albums that sweep you up in their atmosphere and energy.

Meiburg’s voice itself is an instant draw; it’s assertive and theatrical, expressive in a way that’s intriguingly divergent from Will Sheff’s bare, ratcheting yowl. On opener “On The Death Of The Waters,” Meiburg is the anchoring force amid a crashing sea of instruments that eventually die down to a lone haunting piano all proof positive of the drama and sheer noise that Shearwater can create. And when his vocals finally grows unhinged, like the howling let loose on “Leviathan, Bound,” it’s a stunning contrast to the intricately cobbled sonic palette that backs him, all glockenspiel and piles of strings that rise to match and create a track that is far fuller than you would expect in a barely three-minute runtime.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Meanwhile, lead single “Rooks” boasts a chugging drumbeat and swirling guitars, and is unexpectedly catchy for a track crammed full of imagery of rooks (crow-like birds, one of many instances where Meiburg’s background as an ornithologist reveals itself) “gathered in a field…burned in  feathering pyre with their cold black eyes” and empty cages ringing in the falconer’s heart. Rook’s lyrics are uniformly well-crafted, full of lines and images that create the dangerous and hypnotic mood of the disc. “You were tracing the lines of a globe with your fingers: cool rivers, white wastes, desert shores, and the forest green / And a limitless life in the breath of each tide / And each bright mountain, rising,” sings Meiburg in the album centerpiece, “Home Life,” which skims and sways through seven minutes of rumbling drums and layers of woodwind and strings, only just growing a little ponderous near the end.

“Century Eyes” provides a quick, necessary snap of energy with its thick guitars and soaring vocals before giving way to the hushed, hypnotic pace of “I Was A Cloud.” Still, compared to the rich sonic experimentation of the rest of Rook’s material, the spare guitar accompaniment can seem a little repetitious, especially unchanged over the course of five minutes. Still, “South Col” takes that slight sense of the mundane and twists the disc into a spooky, feedback-laden, almost avant-garde instrumental, giving a hint of how Shearwater’s baroquely pretty arrangements could explore something messier. 

Rook is an impressive outing from a band that is coming into its own; Meiburg and company have created a rich sound that will likely only grow better with time and experimentation.

Rating: B+

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© 2009 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Matador, and is used for informational purposes only.