There are plenty of good reasons to listen to Shearwater: There’s the band’s admirably expansive ambitions, almost prog-level for an indie rock band. (They made their mark by releasing an actual honest-to-god trilogy of albums.) There’s the panache with which they pull up dramatic, dynamic flare-ups, their big choruses erupting out of placid stillness. There’s their light touch with orchestral arrangements. There’s Thor Harris, so good at pounding the shit out of drums and looking like a thawed-out caveman that Michael Gira poached him for the reactivated Swans. There’s their always-immaculate production. But there’s only one great reason to listen to Shearwater, and that’s Jonathan Meiburg’s voice. Meiburg’s voice is, quite simply, a wonder: An operatic tenor that soars and swoops and keens without Meiburg ever cutting corners on his precise, clipped, almost-British locution. It’s a voice engineered to echo off of European canyon walls, and Shearwater’s songs seem built completely around it, arranged to stay out of its way. The all-covers album is the sort of thing that practically broadcasts its own inessential status, to allow bands a space to scream about their own good taste, and I’m tempted to make Spaghetti Incident? jokes every time I hear about another one coming out. With Shearwater, though, it makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to hear that voice sing a whole mess of other people’s songs?
This would be a good place to point out that Fellow Travelers, Shearwater’s new one, is a slight album by design. It’s a short album, just over a half-hour long. And it only has one original song, the lovely but previously-released Sharon Van Etten duet “A Wake For The Minotaur.” (It was a B-side to a Record Store Day cover of a Tom Petty song.) The covers that make up the rest of the album aren’t bold recontextualizations. They never pull the classic covers-album tricks: Prettifying old punk or hardcore songs, dirtying up sparkling pop standards, throwing as many tracklist juxtapositions as they can find. Instead, as the title implies, the album seems mostly dedicated to the band’s friends and contemporaries. Almost all the songs are from the past decade or so, and many are from bands who have shared stages or even, in Xiu Xiu’s case, side projects with Shearwater members. The biggest left turn comes when Shearwater cover Coldplay, another band whose greatest asset is its singers incandescent voice, and it’s not even a particularly well-known Coldplay song. These are, for the most part, light and affectionate reworkings, not complete overhauls, and there’s even a particular focus on bands whose singers already have great voices, like Wye Oak, rather than on songs that could really use Meiburg’s help. In a busier week, I probably wouldn’t give Fellow Travelers serious Album Of The Week consideration. But as the year winds down and the release calendar grows sparser, the charms of an album like this can grow even more obvious. It would be worth our collective time whenever it came out, and a release right now means that it might get the attention it deserves. That’s a good thing.
The two best songs on Fellow Travelers are the relatively obscure choices that bookend it. They open things up with a spare, elegant voice-and-piano take on Jesca Hoop’s “Our Only Sun,” and then end it with an acoustic-motorik version of the Baptist Generals’ plainspoken family lament “Fucked Up Life,” and both versions are so beautiful that they might rip you apart. And even if the album doesn’t reach those heights again, it’s full of that sort of still-but-desperate beauty. In Shearwater’s hands, Clinic’s “Tomorrow,” a muttery groove in its original form, becomes a heartfelt buildup to a cathartic climax. St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” drops its tricky weird-pop arrangement and becomes a straight-up feel-good comfort-food singalong. Wye Oak’s “Mary Is Mary” loses its oceans of reverb, and almost half of its length, but it keeps its brooding, regretful atmosphere. (Meiburg, it should be noted, seems totally comfortable singing songs originally sung by women, without switching up pronouns or anything; not many male singers would be brave enough to try the stuff he masters here.) On Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven,” the icky Auto-Tune gloss disappears, and the song becomes the sort of thing that might’ve happened if the band had recorded it back in the Parachutes era, back when Chris Martin still kept Jeff Buckley’s Grace on heavy rotation. And Xiu Xiu’s squirmy new-wave call-to-arms “I Luv The Valley OH!” transforms into an honest-to-god rock song, with a gut-ripping guitar riff and a triumphant glory note. Meiburg sings it almost like it’s an American Idol audition, and I can’t even tell you how much it improves a song I never much liked. (Matt LeMay is a good dude and all, but I still feel like he owes me $14 for the Pitchfork review that convinced me to spend actual money on Fabulous Muscles.)
Really, there’s only one glaring misstep on the album, and that’s Shearwater’s version of one of my favorite ’90s alt-rock radio hits, Folk Implosion’s Kids-soundtrack slow-burner “Natural One.” In its original state, “Natural One” is both Lou Barlow’s one random-ass dance with actual pop success and, arguably, his greatest songwriting moment: A dark and snaky groove with an ambiguous and sinister lyric and a wonderfully sinuous bassline. Shearwater don’t quite nail the bassline, which absolutely drives me nuts, and with their sparkling clarity and Meiburg’s sharply delivered vocal, they take away the original’s intoxicatingly clammy murk without really replacing it with anything. Even taking “Natural One” into account, though, the album has a 90% hit rate. And even if this weren’t a slow new-release week, it would be well worth your time.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Rhye singer Milosh’s crazy-in-love boutiquey bleep-pop solo effort Jetlag.
• Woods/the Babies member Kevin Morby’s pretty solo folk-rocker Harlem River.
• Syd Arthur’s proggy psych debut On An On.
• Dead Meadow’s woozy, riffy Warble Womb.
• The Flaming Lips’ Peace Sword EP.
• Destroyer’s Five Spanish Songs EP.
• Josh Tillman’s instrumental The History Of Caves score.
• Teengirl Fantasy’s Nun EP.
• Patten’s EOLIAN INSTATE EP.