“Excuse me!” I yelled to the young man who was walking through the parking lot where I ended up. “Could you tell me where Gardner Lounge is?”
I was on the campus of Grinnell College, a private and wildly expensive college located in the sleepy Iowa town of Grinnell (population 9,500). There’s not a lot to do in Grinnell, which is why the college uses some of the $45,000 it charges undergrads each year in tuition to bring in top-tier alternative bands for the students’ amusement. The best part about these shows is that they’re free and they occasionally let the rest of us dumb Iowa natives into their exclusive buildings to witness the event.
The bio sheet that came with the advance copy of Shearwater‘s latest opus The Golden Archipelago recommends that the reviewer listen to the new album “more than once.” Since the band’s last two efforts—2006’s Palo Santos and 2008’s Rook—were slow burners too, I fully understand that Shearwater’s meticulous blend of multi-instrumental arrangements and Jonathan Meiburg’s sweeping vocals may take time to fully unravel. But for me, the repeated listens here will come from pure enjoyment, and to decide which one of these acknowledged trilogy pieces should be considered as the band’s greatest moment.
The surprise here isn’t that The Golden Archipelago continues the greatness of Shearwater’s last two efforts, but that Meiburg has managed to deliver such wonderfully consistent splendor in a relatively short amount of time. At each turn of these past five years, he seems to have spearheaded albums of such impressive scope that one couldn’t help but wonder, “How will he be able to top this?”
Am I going deaf or does this sound unmastered…or something? It’s decidedly lo-fi, the vocals are buried in the mix, and it just doesn’t sound good. Is it just me? But Matador is doing some cool stuff for this release, including bundling up a higher-bitrate MP3 or FLAC with the single artwork and “dossier pages.”
The CD comes packaged with a 50-page perfect-bound book that is a set of extracts from a dossier of records, photos, regulations and images collected by Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg. […] Serious researchers will have a way to obtain the actual, full-sized, full-color 73-page dossier in its special envelope – this will be announced soon, so keep your eyes on this space.
Fancy! You don’t hear about too many dossiers in the history of rock and roll…
If I coyly hinted that Shearwater‘s last album, the great Palo Santo, sounded an awful lot like a lost Talk Talk album, then let me make it abundantly clear that the new Shearwater album sounds even more like a lost Talk Talk album.
Two points addressing this: Talk Talk’s leader Mark Hollis was an unheralded performer who straddled brilliance on a few occasions. He was also a slow creator, spending as much as three years in between Talk Talk albums and a full seven years before releasing his own solo album. Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg should not be chastised for wanting to pursue Talk Talk’s lead, as that band left only a handful of clues to begin with. And the time is ripe for further examination and exploration, particularly considering that Mark Hollis is all but retired from music anyway.
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.
On Thieves, Jonathan Meiburg and Will Shelf continue their collaboration in Shearwater with just enough songs to keep their core following satisfied with their charming little Okkervil River side project. The five track ep stays true to the tone they’ve set with previous efforts. Echoey vocals accompany dreamy arrangements with plucky strumming guitars played at a leisurely pace, sporadically accompanied with banjos, organs, and dulcimers.
The songs presented here are so much in the spirit of the previous Shearwater albums Everybody Makes Mistakes and Winged Life, that they sound as if could have been recorded during those sessions and left as outtakes.
Overall it’s a decent ep, but unfortunately it doesn’t have much to set it apart from other releases. This album will appeal to completists of both Okkervil River and Shearwater to be sure. Though, if you’re looking at a starting point with Shearwater, I’d recommend you look into Everybody Makes Mistakes and go from there.