When it was announced in early May that Shearwater main man, Jonathan Meiburg, was leaving his day job as Okkervil River sideman to focus on the promotion of Shearwater's fine fifth album, Rook, it wasn't really that much of a surprise. Meiburg's distinct bell-like vocal gymnastics have been slowly moving further back in the mix on Okkervil's albums, starting with 2005's Black Sheep Boy, and Okkervil leader Will Sheff (who founded both bands with Meiburg) has been moving out of Shearwater since before 2006's Palo Alto. This may be the most mutually beneficial band lineup reshuffling ever: Sheff turned in the best work of his career in 2007 with The Stage Names, and Meiburg has delivered the album of his life with Rook.
Rook, the band's second album for Matador, finds Shearwater on top of their soaring aesthetic. Many of the tracks sound like rousing soundtracks for National Geographic movies about birds attacking fish, or trips through the Alaskan wilderness. (Rook would have worked as a substitute to Eddie Vedder's soundtrack for Into the Wild.) This template is set on opener "On the Death of the Waters," with Meiburg adopting a somber Antony Hegarty-lite voice over a lilting piano line. And like a bird (a Shearwater perhaps?) attacking, the song punches you in the chest as it explodes into a searing coda.
"Rooks" follows, with its rambling percussion and bass line, sounding like a DeVotchKa track if that band wasn't so held up on being kitschy. The centerpiece of the album comes in the form of "Leviathan, Bound" a tombstone dirge that quickly builds and dissipates over its three minutes sans drums, and album highlight "Home Life," where Meiburg shows off his former choir-boy vocal dexterities, and his band's orchestral tendencies flourish.
And that's the most marked distinction between Rook and Shearwater's back catalog. Where in the past Meiburg may have opted for controlled guitar feedback for the emotionally jarring moments, on Rook, he opts for lush orchestration that recalls Beirut and early Eno. When this works, on the gentle "The Snow Leopard," the stomping "Lost Boys," and regal closer "The Hunter's Star," Shearwater soar and strut creating an impeccable ambiance that's both spooky and glistening.
Rook finds Meiburg, and by extension, Shearwater, moving out from behind the shadow of Okkervil River and finding his own place to exist in the indie-rock universe. While earlier albums hinted at the kind of open-air pastorals that the band was capable of, Rook delivers on all the promise.
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