Shearwater’s last three albums, the ones that brought the Austin band to prominence, all made up parts of a loose overarching concept-album trilogy, one that had something to do with islands and bird-migration patterns and general isolation. Once a band gets done with a hugely ambitious project like that one, the temptation is probably to just crank out a quick batch of tunes with nothing to do with anything, to explore its unambitious side. And advance press about Shearwater’s new one Animal Joy indicates that the band has stepped back from its orchestral grandiosity and made something resembling a straight-up rock album. But that description doesn’t quite fit, if only because frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s canyon-spanning falsetto is entirely incapable of doing anything unambitious. Even when this band is doing its best to be simple and direct, their songs come out sounding like finely textured monuments. There’s something inspirational about that.
To be sure, the songs on Animal Joy do kick a little harder than anything on the last few Shearwater albums. One of the band’s only semi-permanent members is drummer Thor Harris, who looks like a neanderthal who’s been thawed out from a block of ice and who’s lately been splitting his time between Shearwater and Swans. If you’ve seen Swans anytime recently (and for fuck’s sake, go see Swans), you know that Harris is every bit the hammer-pounding demon that he looks like he should be. And though Animal Joy doesn’t quite drop the leash on Harris, he sounds a whole lot more present here than he has before. On songs like “Breaking The Yearlings” and “Dread Sovereign,” they actually riff hard, using Harris’s general thunder as an anchor. And those moments feel like minor revelations for the band — the first time in eons that they’ve seemed to belong to any sort of blues-based rock continuity. Orchestral, ornate indie bands aren’t supposed to groove, and it feels weirdly groundbreaking to hear one of the best bands in the genre lock into a serious rhythmic stomp.
But even at its heaviest, the focus on Animal Joy belongs entirely to Meiburg’s voice, which is as it should be. That voice is a still, shivery, fiercely eloquent falsetto that sounds like it’s built to flit between pianos and marimbas, and it still does plenty of that here. He enunciates each word so carefully and perfectly that I feel fairly certain he has some kind of musical-theater background, and he belongs to a very small group of vocalists who can claim a direct aesthetic kinship with Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. (Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe is another.) Every time he opens his throat, all the intricately arranged instruments around him just sort of melt into the background, and he takes center stage. The same thing would probably happen if he was singing for the Black Lips, or Morbid Angel, or the classic-rock cover band in some local bar. A voice like that can make everything around it sound like finely-considered art-rock. And maybe that’s the reason that even the hardest-rocking moments on Animal Joy don’t resonate as hard rock. Instead, the album just sounds like another very good Shearwater album, another winning effort in a long string of them.
Other albums of interest out this week: Heartless Bastards’ stormy country-rock rager Arrow, the Phenomenal Handclap Band’s juicy and accessible psych-disco party Form & Control, Earth’s placid doom-metal brooder Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II, Islands’ idiosyncratic pop effort A Sleep & A Forgetting, Tennis’s shiny indie-pop confection Young And Old, Young Magic’s woozily formless Melt, and Field Music’s twitchy new-wave LP Plumb.