In 1988, I was the Program Director for a college radio station at a public university. We received tons of promotional material, cds, vinyl, and nifty little promotional items designed to get you to listen to the releases that record companies sent. This was critical on many occasions as the ratio between “shit” and “shinola” was weighted heavily in the favor of the excrement. I imagine the same is true today.
The station received an oddly shaped package one day and inside the box, labeled “Spirit Of Eden,” was Talk Talk’s release of the same name, underneath a bright green Granny Smith apple. Only having heard “It’s My Life” and “Life’s What You Make It,” I wasn’t excited about a new Talk Talk album, but thanks to that apple, I took Spirit Of Eden home and witnessed a transformation in my opinion of the band. Ambient, meticulously produced and full of sound structures that would make the most avant-garde band envious, Spirit Of Eden is Talk Talk’s crowning achievement and an experience that is deserving of more praise than it typically receives.
I bring up this album because you may have overlooked it, the same way that I overlooked Shearwater’s Palo Santo when it was released last May. And while 19 years may have passed since Spirit Of Eden‘s release, Palo Santo carries a lot of the same expansive arrangements and divine atmospheres, and I want to make sure you don’t wait a few decades before discovering it.
When Okkervil River‘s Jonathan Meiburg and Will Robinson Sheff started Shearwater, it was a disposable side-project. But thanks to Meiburg asserting control over the name and the songwriting credits, he’s achieved the ambition that was only hinted on in the previous Shearwater releases.
The music ebbs and flows throughout the disc with carefully placed reverb, antiquated string instruments and the occasional bits of shortwave radio noise. It’s all strategically arranged and it brings Shearwater’s most notable instrument, Meiburg’s falsetto, to the forefront. Drawing from equal parts Jeff Buckley and John Cale, Meiburg’s narcotic wails combine with the moody backdrop to create a beautifully captivating album. On “Hail Mary,” Meiburg ups things a little bit with a cathartic bit of aggressive delivery and atonal feedback. It’s a nice manner in which he keeps things interesting, but truth be told, the most powerful moments throughout the album are the ones barely heard.
Palo Santo is so unlike other releases currently available, there’s a good chance that it’s gone quietly unnoticed. And given the financial limitations of any independent label, there’s an even greater chance that there’s not enough clever promotional efforts to get people’s attention to what Shearwater has done with this stunning achievement.
Consider this review, then, your Granny Smith apple.
Update: Matador Records has signed Shearwater and will release a double-disc verison of Palo Santo on April 10. We’d link to an mp3 of a newly recorded version of “Red Sea, Black Sea” but the goons at Matador don’t allow deep links to their MP3s anymore.