Release Date: Nov 25, 2013
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Over the past 15 years, the members of Shearwater have performed with their share of talented bands and artists. Their ninth album, Fellow Travelers, is, in a way, a scrapbook of these memories. It is a collection of covers from the bands they’ve toured with over the course of their career. It is the reinterpretation of many beloved songs from various genres; it is a payment of respects to their peers they tramped along the road with.
Cover albums can be a way for a band to pay homage to their influences, but Fellow Travelers, Shearwater's ninth album, takes that sentiment one step further, with the group exploring and collaborating with some of the acts they've toured with during the last decade, from high rollers like Coldplay to critical darlings such as St. Vincent to obscure British folksingers like David Thomas Broughton. Lead singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg's talent for orchestration allows him to capitalize on the broad range of styles in play, resulting in a respectfully experimental album rich with surprises.
“If we can’t have fame, I guess, at least we can have notoriety.” While Jonathan Meiburg writes this in the extensive liner notes for Fellow Travelers, the latest record from his band Shearwater, I would pick another word. Respect, maybe. Beloved in the press and by numerous other bands (I once had a good chat with Los Campesinos! based on my Shearwater T-shirt), they’ve never alchemized it into even moderate indie fame.
Listeners who are unfamiliar with any of the definitive versions of the nine covers that appear on Shearwater's eighth studio outing will be forgiven for thinking that they're listening to Jonathan Meiburg-penned originals. In fact, all ten cuts, including the lone new original, the Sharon Van Etten-assisted "A Wake for the Minotaur," are so steeped in the Austin, Texas-based outfit's signature blend of heady melodrama and evocative, often explosive, mid-sized stadium rock, that they would fit in seamlessly on an extended edition of 2012's Animal Joy. Billed as a tribute to some of the artists that the band has shared the road with over the years, the aptly-named Fellow Travelers relies on material that's far more idiosyncratic than many albums of the same ilk, and if anything, that they are able to pull from a well so deep that it includes both David Thomas Broughton ("Ambiguity") and Coldplay ("Hurts Like Heaven") shows how tenacious the group has been since their 2002 debut.
Originally intended as a low key EP release before the band’s follow up to 2012’s ‘Animal Joy’, this latest project from Shearwater, now fully formed into a ten track long player, is a well thought out effort from the Texans. Calling ‘Fellow Travelers’ a covers album does it a slight disservice, as it is very much a retrospective of musicians Shearwater have toured with over the course of their 14 year career. The twist being those same collaborators sidestep their own work in favour of someone else’s material, producing a surprisingly entertaining package.
Taking into account the greatness of 2008’s Rook, Austin, Texas band Shearwater’s output over the past five years has been solid but fairly by the numbers. 2010’s Golden Archipelago and last year’s Animal Joy were worthwhile, if not quite electrifying, entries in the band’s catalogue. So it’s at least nice that Fellow Travelers, a covers album of songs from bands with whom Shearwater has toured that’s sandwiched in between Animal Joy and a likely album in 2014, at least proves that Jonathan Meiburg and company are willing to take risks in contrast to the safe territory of their past couple records, even if, like most covers albums, it’s a mixed bag.
A catalogue of influences might pique our interest in a band, but when it comes to those we take to heart, one of the most important clues is how much they themselves, come across as fans; frantically pressing music into your hand, or solemnly handing over headphones and saying 'this is going to change your life. ' This doesn’t mean making 'record-collector rock', and it isn’t the same as obscurism, or crate-digging – a quantitative approach to proving your worth – but the simple desire to share your enthusiasm for whoever opened your eyes (or, as it were, ears) to sonic possibilities, with no fear of being deemed unoriginal or sneered at for behaviour unbecoming a rock-star. In this light, some of the most (apparently) curmudgeonly or morose bands turn out to be big geeks, and that’s what keeps them discovering, while others who come out of the gate with an us-against-the-world gang mentality soon run out of the ideas.
Review Summary: And for the first time, Shearwater sound like mere passengers to the musicYou never really hear about great cover albums because they're inherently hard to relate to. When an artist finds music they value enough to want to recreate, it’s from love and admiration-- they want to show others why they got to be so damned fascinated with it in the first place. But when I hear someone else’s take on a song, it may not be something I can understand-- hell, it may be something that only truly makes sense in their minds.
The wholeness of Shearwater’s aesthetic is an admirable quality, and one that lets people know right off the bat if the band's “not their thing.” Even before you hear Jonathan Meiburg’s operatic vocals, the ornate, orchestral arrangements give you the suspicion that his concerns are birds, snow leopards, horses, and golden archipelagos. This makes a Shearwater covers album an intriguing proposition and also a risky one: can anyone else’s songwriting survive in these conditions? So it’s even more interesting that this collection is called Fellow Travelers; sure, it’s taken from Trotsky, but all the same, it lets you know who Shearwater see as not only their role models, but also their peers. Coldplay and St.
Fellow Travelers is perhaps more interesting as a concept than as a record. Its premise is pretty damn neat: Shearwater recorded covers of songs by bands they'd toured with in the past, while collaborating in the studio with members of some of those bands. (The hitch: any artists involved couldn't play on their own songs.) Shearwater succeeds in putting their distinct twist on each track—Jonathan Meiburg's unmistakable voice helps a lot with that—but naturally, some reinterpretations work better than others.
In Xiu Xiu’s original version of “I Luv the Valley OH!” (from their seminal Fabulous Muscles record), singer Jamie Stewart reaches the song’s titular phrase, on that all-caps, exclamation point-adorned “OH!”, the music drops completely out, and Stewart screams it, presumably redlining his recording equipment. On Shearwater’s version of the song, the second track on the band’s (mostly) covers record, Fellow Travelers, frontman Jonathan Meiburg reaches that moment, only to sing the note in the crystalline, fragile vocal tone for which he’s known. There are many moments on Fellow Travelers that evoke that same uncanny valley feeling, but that moment is the most obvious and the most telling.
Last years’ Animal Joy was Shearwater’s most commercially successful record ever. Next year, there’s supposed to be a proper full-length follow-up. In between the two, Jonathan Meiburg & Co. had intended to release a frivolous homemade EP full of covers; but instead, we’ve go an entire LP of reinterpretations.
As evidenced by last year’s Sharon Van Etten-assisted rendition of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Shearwater’s obviously capable of an exemplary cover. “Fellow Travelers,” which takes on material by artists with whom it’s toured, shows that the band’s aim isn’t always so true. Certainly, Shearwater produces a few more winners, from the faithful (albeit itchier) take on the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” to the upward-spiraling drama of Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley OH!!,” with a lurching electric guitar line and a snare that hits like the crack of a gun.
Although there is no doubting the sincerity and artistic ambition that Jonathan Meiburg has invested whilst leading the ornithologically-obsessed Shearwater over the last decade, the band’s oeuvre has sometimes lacked in easy nesting places for newcomers needing to acclimatise to the contradictory fusion of the ornate and the austere. This new covers-based album could however change the situation. Originally envisaged as a low-key mid-length release to tide fans until a bona fide sequel to 2012’s Animal Joy LP, the 10-track Fellow Travelers has instead become an album-sized statement in its own right.
Shearwater Fellow Travelers (Sub Pop) "Sixty million years ago, this was the bottom of the ocean," writes Jonathan Meiburg of the lonely stretch of I-10 through West Texas. "Tonight, though, it's just the highway to El Paso." The liner notes for Shearwater's new covers LP, songs cribbed from tourmates ranging from St. Vincent ("Cheerleader") and Xiu Xiu ("I Luv the Valley Oh!") to Coldplay ("Hurts Like Heaven") and the Folk Implosion ("Natural One"), doubles as a road journal.