Release Date: Feb 14, 2012
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Though the group began as a side project for Okkervil River’s Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater sharpened their own bones over the course of the so-called “Island Arc,” a trio of records masterminded by Meiburg that culminated in 2010’s The Golden Archipelago. Having left Okkervil in 2008 to devote himself more fully to Shearwater, the devoted birdwatcher forged a distinct aesthetic that closely mirrored the patterns of his hobby: wide-open spaces dotted with sparse instrumentation and melody, guided by a steady baritone and subject to occasional violent outbursts. On Animal Joy, Meiburg guides his quarry back to the mainland, anchoring his songs in dexterous basslines and steady rhythms.
Over the course of its decade-long life, Jonathan Meiburg’s Shearwater has excelled in developing atmosphere and texture within an indie-rock context. With Animal Joy, the band doesn’t drop that skill, but it utilizes the approach in a more intense setting. Where the band previously went for “sweeping,” it’s now focused on “driving,” and by combining the old approach with a new, more immediate energy, the group’s created the best album of its career.
Review Summary: I wanna get close, I wanna get closerFrom the top, then: Animal Joy starts with the sort of restless energy that would persuade us of anything. We talk of great songs with their rise and fall, but “Animal Life” is a race to the finish with no intelligent pacing, propelled ignorantly and wonderfully by all the things that sound boring to describe but exhilarating to behold. It has the simplest of guitar lines and the greatest of climaxes.
Though it seems ridiculous that Shearwater aren’t big by now (not you know, big big, but Sufjan Stevens or The National big), one can take some consolation in the fact that it’s hard to imagine Jonathan Meiburg and co would gain anything other than dollars from the leap to, ooh, silver-selling status. Last set The Golden Archipelago was maybe expected to be the Texan band’s breakthrough following the strides taken with Palo Santo and Rook. But the sumptuous arrangements, expensive-sounding production and above all the 50 page booklet The Golden Dossier that accompanied the album were not symptomatic of a hubristic belief that it was going to sell kerchillions, but rather Shearwater simply doing what they do.
Since their inception in 2001, Austin, Texas-based trio Shearwater have been associated with Americana. In truth, they're more adventurous than that term implies. The group's eighth album, and their first for Sub Pop, affixes twisted blue-collar rock to the kind of free-form pop perfected by Talk Talk, resulting in a contender for their boldest LP yet.
After releasing a pair of gorgeous, languid collections of naturalist-themed chamber pop (Rook, The Golden Archipelago), Shearwater delivers a sealskin boot to the head with the measured but primal Animal Joy, their eighth studio album and first for the Sub Pop label. Dense, powerful, wild, yet immaculately rendered, Animal Joy blends the expansive, cinematic scope of contemporaries like Other Lives and the National with the arty drama of "San Jacinto"-era Peter Gabriel. Jonathan Meiburg's mighty falsetto achieves a richness it has only hinted at on previous outings, and the production, provided by the band along with fellow Texan Danny Reisch (White Denim, Brass Bed), is big-budget slick without feeling souless and sterile.
“We fully believed we were about to create a literature that was as complex and sophisticated as what we call literature, but it was all of a sudden in music in particular. Everybody looked into the abyss and most people chickened out saying, ‘do we really want William Faulkner?’” –David Thomas “Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.
Let's just admit that Okkervil River misses Jonathan Meiburg. Or that it should. Since Meiburg left -- after the recording of The Stand-Ins -- both Okkervil River and Meiburg's band, Shearwater, have continued to expand their sound. But while Okkervil River seems to be losing its shape as it goes, Shearwater's vision continues to be ambitious while maintaining its clarity.
Shearwater are often considered "underappreciated," but they're just properly appreciated by an understandably modest, devoted fanbase. Though their handsomely recorded albums and Jonathan Meiburg's former membership in Okkervil River put them in the context of NPR darlings and amphitheater headliners, they're still a tough sell: Often compared to Talk Talk at their most commercially forbidding, they're not populist like Okkervil or the National, their theatricality doesn't appeal to a specific brand of geekdom like the Decemberists or Andrew Bird, and their artiness is too pretty and studied to be edgy. Even when trying to describe what makes something like Rook's "The Snow Leopard" a staggering listen, you're left with chin-stroking explanations, like how a trumpet's fanfare finally breaks the tension of John Congleton's immaculate production, but it lasts three seconds and takes four minutes to get there.
ShearwaterAnimal Joy[Sub Pop; 2012]By Ricky Schweitzer; March 9, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetIn ten years, if someone asks me whether or not Shearwater had ever released a bad record, I can't imagine a scenario in which the answer would be yes. Shearwater seems to exist as a member of an elite class that doesn't seem quite capable of producing anything pedestrian. Unfortunately, this is a sort of purgatory in which reliability comes at the expense of risk, a fact that was first truly evident on their last album The Golden Archipelago, but continues throughout most of Animal Joy and therefore limits its potential rewards.
It may be called Animal Joy, but the seventh album from Texas trio Shearwater is a strenuously joyless experience. Every sinew of this muscular music sounds clenched and furiously tense. Frontman Jonathan Meiburg is preoccupied with ideas of change: the process of shifting from one stage in life to another; the strength of mind required to accept that some idea or relationship or perspective we once cherished has died.
Jonathan Meiburg sings like a sorrowing angel looking down on a tortured earth. Once an outlet for songs too quiet for Texan indie rockers Okkervil River, Shearwater crafted a grand setting for this jewel with their Island Arc trilogy, but their eighth album drags his beatific baritone down to a flesh-and-blood struggle. ‘Immaculate’ pulses with pantingly eager riffs, while ‘Dread Sovereign’’s growly-guitared dip into so-wrong-so-right lust is intoxicating.
Just over a year ago, on January 15, 2011, Shearwater took to the stage at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church and performed its “Island Arc” albums—a loose trilogy including Palo Santo (2006), Rook (2008), and The Golden Archipelago (2010)— in their sweeping entirety. When I interviewed Jonathan Meiburg last month, he was still reeling from the experience. “It felt like a validation of those records,” the singer told me proudly.
An emotionally validating and creatively ambitious trio, Shearwater will make you question why you bother listening to anything but the epic, gutsy music found on Animal Joy, the band’s first record since jumping from Matador Records to Sub Pop. Led by former Okkervil River drummer Jonathan Meiburg, alongside bassist Kimberly Burke and percussionist Thor Harris, the trio tosses musical Hail Mary’s and nails it almost every time, producing a record that’s life-affirming in its grandiosity. The title track kick-starts this theme from the get-go, which should demonstrate even to Shearwater neophytes and skeptics that the band can build tension in a song better than most of their peers.
The density of Shearwater's discography is more than a little overwhelming. Formed as a side-project for Jonathan Meiburg, while still a member of Okkervil River, it didn't take very long for them to shake the notion that they were simply a lesser version of their parent band. They've developed wonderfully to create some incredibly literate music that takes a certain amount of patience to appreciate.
When Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff, of Okkervil River, conjured up a collection of tracks whose quietude and peacefulness didn’t quite slot into the sound of their critically applauded original group, the duo span off to create Shearwater, a side project built around the hushed side of their musical personalities. Eight albums in beneath this ornithological moniker (with only Freiburg remaining from the initial duo) and, whilst the underlying calm remains, things are sounding bolder and braver, soaring rather than strolling. Animal Joy is, for lack of a better word, rich and textured, packed to the brim with a dense, congealed instrumentation alongside the elegantly high vocals of Meiburg.
"We're having trouble taming this one, but luckily, we don't really want to," announced Jonathan Meiburg via a press release regarding Shearwater's seventh full-length, Animal Joy. The LP notes also pointedly state that "No strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album." Harp was, however, so you'd be correct in guessing that Animal Joy isn't quite the musical departure fleeting imaginations might have expected. The pace of the album by the principle trio of Austinites – singer/composer/guitarist Meiburg, with bassist Kimberly Burke and percussion dynamo Thor Harris – is robust, with guitars crackling feedback and the frontman's voice strong and sure.
I spent an inordinate amount of my time in 2011 listening to music by – and reviewing records for – artists who found themselves tangled up in the media frenzy of lo-fi and chillwave. Often a smeary but no less loveable pastiche of indecipherable vocals, willfully retro synthesizers, and staggering reverb, artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out seemed to represent an enigmatic sort of sea change, as if a return to the pop culture of the Reagan years was not only imminent but also plausible. It was really beginning to feel like Steinberger bass guitars and posthumous John Hughes flicks weren’t far off.
For just over a decade Jonathan Meiburg, the man better known as Okkervil River's keyboard player, has used the Shearwater name as a vehicle for his myriad and ever-evolving musical and thematic interests. At first working with fellow Okkerviller Will Sheff, he created sad but deceptively intricate records like 2001's Drake/Buckley influenced acoustic masterpiece The Dissolving Room, a staggering, frozen beauty of an album drenched in supernatural angst. Over the decade things have changed.