Release Date: Jan 22, 2016
Record label: Sup Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Indie/Alternative
The ninth studio LP from the Austin-based outfit, and their second outing for Sub Pop, Jet Plane and Oxbow feels like a culmination of sorts; a rigged explosion in a mountain crevice meant to link past and future. It would be easy to dismiss Shearwater's nod to '80s sonic excess as opportunistic, not to mention a little bit late to the party, if it weren't so consistently compelling and undeniably grand. Opting for the big studio craftsmanship of artists like Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, and Peter Gabriel over the treacly, vintage synth-fueled dance-pop that's been at the forefront of the current '80s revival, Jet Plane and Oxbow effectively expands the sonic territories explored on 2012's like-minded but less immediate Animal Joy.
Nature has always played a crucial role in Jonathan Meiburg’s songwriting. The frontmant of Shearwater is a studied ornithologist, and his boundless, ambitious material has frequently fixed its sights on the sky and the unexplored hinterland that lies below. Musically, his grandiose numbers are filled with swelling, emotional arrangements that routinely lead their characters on personal quests to unchartered lands, both in the physical world and the mental realm within.
To signal its new musical direction, Shearwater updated its Facebook page with a photo of a gray DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor. Nowadays, it seems as if every musician on the planet is time traveling to the 1980s for inspiration. Jet Plane and Oxbow takes its cues from '80s-era David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Peter Gabriel. Jonathan Meiburg's art-rock group even limited itself to playing gear from that period—from Korg synths to Rototom drums—but they've avoided sounding like Austin's answer to Kajagoogoo.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. History is full of big moments, flashpoints that cause quite a stir and change the course of pretty much everything, like for example, the industrial revolution. Mark this year because 2016 is when Shearwater started their own personal industrial revolution on Jet Plane and Oxbow, an album that has the band sounding mechanical and dealing with a few big world problems.
Back in 2008, with breakthrough Rook newly hatched and attracting fresh interest, Shearwater were invited to open a handful of dates on Coldplay’s arena-filling Viva La Vida tour – an incongruous fit, you might think, for Jonathan Meiburg’s plaintive, subdued songwriting. Eight years on, however, hints of stadium-scale bombast are making their mark on the ever-evolving Shearwater sound, with ninth album Jet Plane and Oxbow the band’s punchiest and most populist work to date. If the artwork isn’t indication enough that change is afoot (out with the usual ecological imagery, in with geometric neon), then the bubbling synths and Bowie-esque swagger of lead single Quiet Americans are a dead giveaway.
Originally intended as a one-off side project for Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg back at the turn of the century, 15 years or so later Shearwater are still very much an ongoing concern, with Meiburg leaving Okkervil River in 2008 to focus solely on his second band. Used initially as an outlet for Meiburg and Sheff’s softer songs, which they considered a little too understated for Okkervil River’s more robust sound, Shearwater have gradually evolved, from the austere acoustic Dissolving Room through the dreamy atmospherics of The Golden Archipelago to the more anthemic, radio-friendly choruses of 2012’s last album proper, Animal Joy. After the interesting, if inessential, covers collection Fellow Travellers in late 2013, Jet Plane And Oxbow sees Shearwater continuing to develop in new directions.
Shearwater’s sometime naturalist frontman, Jonathan Meiburg, describes the band’s ninth and finest album as a “protest record”, and it finds him surveying a world embattled by consumerism and environmental menace. As the lyrics hurtle between bloody beaches and ozone-cracked skies, the music strives for a brooding but soaring power to match the message. Motorik Neu! beats and Talk Talk-type atmospherics manage to be epic without sounding bombastic.
Formed in 1999 by two members of Okkervil River—singer/songwriters Jonathan Meiburg (who still leads) and Will Sheff (who left in 2005)—Austin, Texas outfit Shearwater has earned plenty of critical praise, as well as a sizable fan base, for its energetic and catchy take on indie/folk/psychedelic rock. On its newest outing, Jet Plane and Oxbow, the group maintains its multilayered rock edge while also indulging even more in its synth pop tendencies, creating a consistently charming and captivating collection. In fact, it’s likely their best outing to date.
The last time Jonathan Meiburg wrote original music for his longtime art-rock outfit Shearwater, he embraced a stripped-down sound, presented on 2012’s Animal Joy with the telling liner-notes disclaimer that "no strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album. " Back then, Meiburg was nursing a broken heart, and emoted in a rawer manner than in his band's grandiose "Island Arc" trilogy comprised of 2006's Palo Santo, 2008's Rook, and 2010's The Golden Archipelago. Animal Joy hinted at an intimacy hidden behind the "Game of Thrones" magnificence of the band’s earlier work.
Shearwater's most energetic release to date shows the band have come a long way since their sparse, subtle beginnings. On their new album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, mastermind Jonathan Meiburg's applies synth-laden strokes to his songwriting canvas. The start of this transition was felt on Shearwater's last album of new material, 2012's Animal Joy, where charged beats were at odds with the otherwise downbeat mystique.
Shearwater’s 10th label-backed LP, Jet Plane and Oxbow, transports the listener to a tangled world solidly rooted in the ’80s. Jonathan Meiburg’s voice is deep and deliberate, and the songs borrow Kraftwerk’s synths, the percussion of Devo and Talking Heads, and Brian Eno’s limitless layering capabilities. In adopting those traits, the Austin outfit have reached a new height.
Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg has an instantly recognizable voice, sonorous and smooth. That sound has built a loyal following for the Austin, Texas, band over six previous albums of subtly psychedelic indie rock and chamber-pop; the most recent, like 2010's The Golden Archipelago, have often tended towards Shearwater's spectral side, heavy on gorgeous instrumentals and light on strong hooks. So it's refreshing to hear them switch things up on this, their seventh full-length release, by writing more immediate pop songs without sacrificing their rich, thoughtfully placed instrumentation.
Shearwater have never been shy of ambition, and they’ve spent the better part of the last decade – since founding member (and Okkervil River frontman) Will Sheff left and Jonathan Meiburg took full control of songwriting duties – steering their quasi-orchestral, quasi-operatic sounds to majestic heights. While the graceful and ethereal beauty that has come to define the band in that time can be found on these 11 songs – most notably on the gentle lilt of Backchannels and the quiet but anthemic chug of Only Child – for the most part, Jet Plane And Oxbow sees Shearwater paddle through the same kind of radio rock waters that elevated The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream to the top of many Best Of 2014 lists. Yet while that approach worked for that band, it feels almost like Shearwater are doing themselves a disservice here – the calm plod of Wildlife In America sounds like something from Bruce Springsteen’s relatively underwhelming early 90s period, while Filaments’ new wave jitters get stuck in a rut of needless experimentation.
Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater head honcho, recently released a Spotify playlist showcasing the influences on Jet Plane and Oxbow, his eighth record under the name, depending on how you count (this is omitting outtakes, compilations and the middling covers record Fellow Travelers). It leans heavily on late Seventies and early Eighties pioneers who helped bring conceptual approaches to pop and digital techniques into the mainstream: Bowie, Gabriel, Eno, Byrne. Considering Meiburg came to prominence via a trilogy of esoteric and baroque prog-folk records – the wonderful Rook from 2008 is especially worth exploring – borne of a craggy isolation that was central to their appeal, it’s clear that a major musical departure was on the cards.
Being from El Paso Texas and having travelled to Austin for the first time earlier this year, I got a sense of the town beyond the Franklin BBQ lines and the toque wearing, magic sticks wielding component of the city. I found it to be a pretty chilled out town compared with Houston and its truck nuts/testicles hanging contingent. Stuck in LBJ country the town is a wonderful incongruous mix of 10-gallon hat wearing lawyers and hacky-sackers, mixed with a healthy left leaning population is I’m certain like a black eye in the heart of conservative Texas.
Shearwater’s 2012 album, Animal Joy, was an exuberant celebration of wildness and wilderness, as well as the band’s most focused effort to date. If Animal Joy and earlier albums looked at the natural world, new release Jet Plane And Oxbow begins to examine its manmade counterpart, both politically and structurally. Frontman Jonathan Meiburg has called it a protest album of sorts, evident in the lead single, “Quiet Americans,” which unravels an internal struggle of being an American—a source of both privilege and embarrassment—in today’s global political environment.
Although no stranger to 1980s influences, with his deep love of Talk Talk (as declared eloquently on these very pages in fact), Jonathan Meiburg has never fully co-opted the aesthetics of the said decade. Perhaps encouraged by the positive rehabilitation of previously maligned period production values and stylistic shticks by the likes of The War On Drugs, Ryan Adams and even Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan in recent times and by the palate-cleansing of 2013’s Fellow Travelers covers LP, Meiburg’s latest and long-in-the-works album with Shearwater finds him marrying literate songcraft to stirringly big ’80s-inspired studio arrangements, with remarkably strong outcomes. Although Jet Plane And Oxbow may come with clunky title, its construction is far from half-baked.
Shearwater — Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop)Jet Plane and Oxbow puts a motorik pulse under Shearwater’s alternately hushed and triumphant anthems, pulling Jonathan Meiburg’s songcraft further away from its fragile art-song roots and closer to a stadium-sized rock statement. This ninth full length is separated by one release (the mostly covers Fellow Travelers) from 2012’s Animal Joy, but shares its exulting tone and ambition. Meiburg can still flutter in delicate falsetto confession like no other indie rock singer, but these moments are nearly always followed by walloping, guitar-clanging crescendos.Meiburg works with a somewhat different cast of supporting musicians on Jet Plane and Oxbow than Animal Joy.
As voters try sorting through the chaos of an election year, Jonathan Meiburg wades into the debate in a decidedly more big-tent fashion than either party. "Where are the Americans?" the Shearwater frontman/songwriter wonders on Eighties glitz "Quiet Americans. " Jet Plane and Oxbow, Shearwater's ninth LP, has been described by its author as a protest album set in 1980, but one less pointed at any particular subject than it is at the American condition.