always had a fondness for birds. There's something pleasant about those
little beasts: the calculated movements, the twitchy eyes, the whole
flying thing. As far as animals go, I'm for birds. Shearwater frontman
Jonathan Meiburg has more than a passing fancy for the aves; he's a
grad student in ornithology and is one of the go-to-guys for knowledge
on the Striated Caracara, a falcon-type-thing found in the Falkland
Islands. It's a little tricky to use birds as a metaphor for music
without sounding like an ass, so I will spare you but for a couple of
points. Here's one of them: A man who has spent much of his adult life
engulfed in the study of birds is bound to dispense some of his
scholarly obsession into his music.
is the fourth Shearwater full-length and the first to feature Meiburg's
singing and songwriting exclusively. On albums past, Meiburg and his Okkervil River
chum Will Sheff split the duties at the helm with pretty excellent
results, but none of those three records match the bold purpose or
concise outcome of Palo Santo. The band's previous EP, 2005's Thieves, hinted at this type of evolution, but its follow-up fully exceeds all of the expected potential.
Throughout Palo Santo,
Meiburg's deliberate tenor is mixed high, sharing the space with a
flurry of daringly polished instruments and melodies built in linear
form that fit his abstractly personal lyrics perfectly. By
deliberateness, I mean that his voice comes out in the way that Pete
Seeger's does, as if each word were being thrust from his body with the
intent of not letting anyone miss a vowel. Far from a one-man act,
though, the other players in Shearwater step up on this release, each
as confident, measured and aware of what the songs require as their
frontman is. Drummer Thor Harris forms a cohesive bond with his partner
in rhythm, bassist Kim Burke (Meiburg's ex-wife), but also comes
through on some of the record's better tracks with excellent work on
album's strength can be distilled from a sampling of its most potent
tracks, each in a similar strain of atmospheric folk-noir but executed
with varied degrees of rage, beauty and despair. Trudging drums and
fuzzed-out bass plod through the foreboding "White Waves." A panicked
piano whips around the pithy "Seventy-four, Seventy-five," the album's
best track, with a grim foresight on the ills of aging. "Nobody" and
"Hail Mary" are near-lullabies, with Meiburg singing in a fragile
falsetto. About halfway through, the latter track turns into a
tweaked-out organ jam.
Bird lovers have a word they use when speaking of the je ne sais quoi of a bird's being: jizz (yes, I am fully aware of the hilarious other
meaning of this word, but I should dismiss myself from any pun-making).
Meiburg has shown with this release that the intangibles of his
artistic vision can alone carry a record. On Palo Santo, that vision takes Shearwater to the point of transcending everything it has already done.
You might even say that Palo Santo has Meiburg's jizz all over it. (I'm sorry.)
Listen to "White Waves"