Thursday, June 5, 2008

[outsideleft] Shearwater: Swooning, Screaming, Disappearing


For some, summer is a firecracker, popping suddenly, invoking revelry and escape. I, however live in a place where summer is a constant companion for months after its first arrival, often more palpable a presence than the company one keeps, a haunting, sweaty manifestation of melancholy. That first breeze of hot air makes everyone suddenly look up with a twinge of it’s coming.

The breeze on which Jonathan Meiburg floats in Shearwater’s Rook is a really a heat radiating off the songs in barely visible waves. “On The Death of the Waters” has him nearly crumbling like a dried leaf when all of a sudden, a flash flood of (comparatively) deafening guitar sweeps him up in a glorious rush. A herd of buffalo, a neutron bomb, a desperate kiss – that is what that instrumental supernova is, briefly blinding you and then receding like a hallucination.

It’s a great way to start a great album, especially when the rest of the songs maintain more static textures. “Rooks” has all the hallmarks of extended listening to Cat Power’s “Cross-Boned Style”(a practice in which I myself have engaged) adding some majestic trumpet work in for sauciness. “Leviathan, Bound,” in contrast, has Meiburg twittering and occasionally howling in the guilded song cage in which he is ensconced, and “Home Life” displays him and tender and broken from his imprisonment. A lot of different artists lately are successfully mining this rich vein of hushed tension - Iron & Wine, Antony and the Johnsons, Andrew Bird to name a few - but none of them have Meiburg’s gentle touch with instrumentation nor do they let their voices fly as much majestic, ego-less, melodrama. This tension between a powerful voice and a pressure cooker of sound is what made Frank Sinatra’s autumnal albums so great, and is a sure-fire formula here. The singer disappears into the song by the act of singing it.

Are you getting the impression that I love, love, love this record? I do. Each walk through it reveals some small detail I failed to notice before, something else that only reinforces endearment, and that is as good a definition of love as there is. The whining screech of the violins deep in the distance of the pastoral string bed at the beginning of “Lost Boys” is like a cry for help, but soon enough you are too swept up in the song’s intoxicating gaze to rescue it. The melodies of this song fold like a blanket being put away for the hot season.

“Century Eyes” is a song I want to hand to anyone extolling the virtues of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and believe it or not there are extollers out there. It h as all the bombast of a Big! Musical! Number! complete with killer hooks that sneak in around the scenery, yet the whole thing manages to hold together as threatens to shake apart. And for as orchestral as “Central Eyes” is, “I Was a Cloud” is as intimate. Meiburg coos in that soft part of your brain, weakened by humidity and doldrums, the canticle of guitar and harp moving in absent time with the ceiling fan spinning overhead.

“Sought Col” is an abrasive instrumental interlude of electrical hum and skin being slowly torn away to expose the quivering flesh underneath, building up to a blinding high tone that leaves spots everywhere, as if you looked at the sun. It’s an odd but necessary rickety bridge bringing us to “The Snow Leopard,” the elegiac penultimate fulcrum of this record. “The Snow Leopard” rides a growing wave like many of the other songs on this record, but the force in that wave is exploited rather than mediated as it slowly approaches shore, with Meiburg cooing his warnings swept up in its crest. Trumpets blare! Cymbals crash! Piano keys are pounded, and then… the water recedes revealing nothing and the seas are once again calm, the beach empty. The sweet piano and voice over the subdued brushed percussion and strings in the final track “The Hunter’s Star” zoom out from this seashore scene farther and farther until we are in the blackness of space, hurtling away from everything we know toward a brilliant mysterious future.


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