The Golden Archipelago


Matador, 2010

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


The latest album from indie musicians Shearwater may not garner the kind of attention that more established bands get, but it’s still a cause for mini-celebration in today’s chock-full indie world. They’re charted a steady path since their inception in 2001; previous albums Palo Santo and Rook were dense, complicated, and strangely lovely. Particularly on the critically acclaimed Rook, Shearwater (comprised by Meiburg, drummer Thor Harris, cellist Kimberly Burke, and myriad guest instrumentalists) came 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 earlier outings, it was often bare and fragile, surprising you with its strength at the very last moment. The Golden Archipelago is distinctive, however, in its immediacy. The band strikes you with a carefully woven interplay of tense, dynamic song structures and gorgeously shimmering instrumentation. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

On opener “Meridian,” Meiburg’s vocals are the anchoring force amid a seething sea of instruments that eventually die down to a lone haunting piano, all proof positive of the drama that Shearwater can create even without being in-your-face. It leads right into “Black Eyes,” where the group lets loose in a flurry of howling vocals and chugging guitars and drums. Much credit on this disc is due to drummer Thor Harris, who – like his name would imply – is a dramatically thundering asset to the rhythm section, going from subtle on “Runners of the Sun” to roiling on “Castaways.”

Though The Golden Archipelago seems like an inviting title, this album focuses more on destruction and invasion. These are not paradise islands but places of isolation and danger, where the water is rising perilously and there are no ways out. As such, an overriding sense of claustrophobia informs every note sung, every note played, pervading the seeming delicateness of the instrumentation and Meiburg’s occasionally muted vocals (see “Hidden Lakes,” which churns below the surface with tension despite the hypnotically lovely, restrained pluck of keys and Meiburg’s hushed singing). 

One of the many strengths of this album is the band’s ability to measure rise and fall, whether it’s following the spacious trajectory of “Castaways” with the hazy swaths of guitar on “An Insular Life,” or the way Meiburg’s explode into life on “Corridors” after nearly a minute of tense, swirling buildup. And while much has been made of Meiburg’s side career as an ornithologist (studier of birds), the naturalism in his imagery is that much more effective as a result of the sturdiness of his rhythm section. On previous albums, the band often seemed secondary to Meiburg’s vocal prowess, but on The Golden Archipelago, they are inextricably wound. The strong, heady mix of rambling keys, pounding drums, and sweeping guitars provides much of the strength of this disc, and it is precisely what allows for Meiburg’s acrobatic vocal experimentation.

This release builds on what Palo Santo and Rook began: proving just what a force Shearwater can and will be. They’re just getting better and better, combining their tight instrumentation and poetic sensibility into an album that will make you think and make you pay attention.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2010 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.