If you only listen to one song today, make it “Insolence” by Shearwater (2012, from the album Animal Joy).
Shearwater is an indie rock band from Austin, Texas. They formed at the turn of the century as a spinoff from Okkervil River. The band was meant to simply be an outlet for Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg to play some of the softer songs they’d written that didn’t really fit Okkervil River’s style. This year, they released their eighth album, Animal Joy. Sheff is still heading up Okkervil River, and he quit his permanent role in Shearwater after the third record —Winged Life— in 2004.
While the “official” studio lineup is a tidy group of three members, that’s all changed recently. The bassist, Kimberly Burke, was Meiburg’s wife until very recently. She didn’t go on either of the two recent “…with special guest Shearwater” tours. Nor did percussionist Thor Harris. I have no idea what the story is there, but I’ve read that both he and Burke are “taking a break from Shearwater”. When I saw them play as Sharon Van Etten‘s special guest in February and again as St. Vincent’s special guest last month, they had the same group of five guys. I’m not involved enough to know who those guys are, but my understanding is that they’re all “friends of the band”, separated by no more than two degrees.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Jonathan Meiburg is one of the most intelligent indie-rockers that you know. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from the prestigious Sewanee:The University of the South. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Geography from the University of Texas. He wrote his thesis on a bird of prey that lives primarily in the Falkland Islands. The band’s name is a reference to a sea bird, and there are lots of ornithological references throughout the Shearwater catalog. It should be no surprise, knowing that, that he’s an avid birder in his spare time. A few weeks ago, before I knew about all this bird stuff, I received a message from a friend who lives in Amsterdam. She’s a professional ornithologist, and since she lives in Holland, I don’t see her very often. Anyway, her message was that she’d just been birding with Meiburg. I thought that it was pretty cool.
As another aside, speaking of “Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater”, here’s a little something extra. From the A/V Club’s Undercover 2012, here’s “Shearon Van Ettenwater” covering the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks song “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”. They cheated a bit because that song wasn’t on the list that they were supposed to choose from. However, they weren’t even supposed to be available to do the thing anyway, so it’s just a “bonus performer/bonus song”-type thing. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s pretty damn good. Sharon really channels Stevie Nicks there. If you close your eyes, you might think that it’s really Stevie. As much as I admire that, I also like that Meiburg didn’t go all-in on the Tom Petty thing — he still did it in his own voice.
Anyway, we’re not here for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. And we never will be. We’re here today for Shearwater. I’m not a huge Shearwater fan. In fact, I only have the newest album. I have it because I was really impressed by their show when they opened for Sharon Van Etten in February. The Animal Joy record hadn’t been released yet, but they were on sale that night, and I snatched up a copy. When I got home and listened to the record, I couldn’t believe how different the record was from the live performance. For a minute, I thought that it wasn’t even the same band. I thought, for just a second, that there had been some misprint in the CD printing factory. I’ve experienced that one time, where the label on the CD wasn’t at all what was on the CD. Remind me someday to tell you that story about Rachel’s. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I wasn’t completely wrong to think that it was a different band. The touring band who I saw that night (and again a couple of weeks ago) isn’t the studio band who recorded the album.
I can only talk about the new album, but I like to compare it to the sum of Efterklang, Red House Painters and Grizzly Bear divided by the sum of The National and Spoon. That’s enough maths for now.
“Insolence” is one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s not as rockin’ as some of them are, and it requires a bit of patience, but it’s really a fantastic song.
This is that song:
“Insolence” by Shearwater
I like the way it starts out. Supremely understated. Just the dreamy guitar bit and the drum fill.
After the “It is effortless, effortless” bit, during which it gets a bit noisy, it goes back to the dreamy guitar and simple drum fill, but this time, they add a bass bit to go with it. At the end of the next “noisy” bit that ends with the “Effortless as fire” line at 2:52, Meiburg’s vocals take over. As his vocals get louder and stronger, the music cuts out. It’s a trick that Mark Kozelek uses all the time. And then there’s a quiet piano bit that shows up for the first time. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but from that point through the rest of the song, there is a bit of a Red House Painters feel. Loud and quiet at the same time. I’m thinking of the song “Mother”, from the Red House Painters(Rollercoaster) album.
I’m not wild about the fade out at the end, but that’s really a mild complaint. It’s a great song that rewards you greatly for your patience.
I like the album quite a bit, and I really need to work on the back catalog now. It’s no surprise that Ian Cohen over at Pitchfork found it to be mediocre. He went to great pains to say that it’s a good record, but that it just isn’t for him. Instead of saying that, though, he found clever little ways to take jabs at the band and their fans (geeky, but not geeky enough). As he often has done, instead of focusing on the album, he focused on what’s different about this album compared to the last one. He’s thinking too much about what the band members might be thinking about the fact that they have a new (better) label in Sub Pop and a new producer. Cohen is also, to be fair, working on a scale that only goes to 8.1. Given that, a 6.9 is actually a pretty great score. He never says so, but only albums named Pinkerton are eligible for a score of higher than 8.1 in his book. I’m not saying that Animal Joy deserves a 9.5 or anything. I just think that it’s ridiculous to make 8 such hallowed ground. I also find it to be ridiculous that Cohen never lets an album stand on its own when he does reviews. It’s always “Well, compared to their previous work…”. Alright. I’m done with that.
You don’t have to take my word as gospel. Listen and decide for yourself.
You can buy Animal Joy from the Sub Pop web store in the format of your choice here. Remember that when you order from Sub Pop, they send you cool stuff like stickers and badges. If you’re into that kind of thing.
I’ll also urge you to see Shearwater when they come through your town as somebody’s special guest. Hopefully, they’ll be headlining their own tour.