|I know this piece uses the words Animal Joy 10,000 times|
but I just really enjoy looking at this album cover!
I’ve had a grave misconception about one of my favorite bands. Shearwater ROCKS. Not in that way, that thing, that superlative, I fire away after EVERY concert I see, “yeah dude…it ROCKED!?” I mean, concurrently, I was trying to see an earthy folk rock show with some of the prettiest music known to man, created by man, and, man, did I get my socks blown off.
How did this happen? I’ve had my perception of a band swayed by a live show, but not in any kind of genre bending sense like this. Perhaps, it was selection of songs. They did play 10 of the 11 songs on their new album Animal Joy, but note if I must, the exclusion was my favorite of the bunch, “Believing Makes It Easy.” Figures. Mid-tempo songs don’t move merchandise.
Many Shearwater songs pay spoils to the listener who wade through five minutes of glassy-as-ice reflecting water to wash themselves in the shear electricity of the cascading falls they’ve been building you up for. Rise up O red-tailed hawk! Most Shearwater albums only really feature a couple of “rock” songs per album. Most of them parallel the songs Barenaked Ladies record naked (allegedly they do this for one song per album)—they stand-alone on hallowed ground. Tracks like: Corridors, Century Eyes and Johnny Voila, on Palo Santo, Rook and Golden Archipelago rip through your stereo speakers like a European Swallow on a quest for coconuts.
In that vein, rocking for Shearwater seemed more like an outburst, rather than a comfortable plop on the couch of treble clef homeostasis, but I GET IT now. Rock on Shearwater. Although, I’m not sure if my perception is better or worse for the shape-shifting action.
I liked Shearwater as a dorky, Earth folk band. I enjoyed their place in my catalog closer to Andrew Bird and the Decemberists, rather than, the distinct possibility of blending in with Midlake. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just how I disseminate what I’m going to listen to on any particular occasion.
It’s not just me though. Something happened on this last album. Something bigger than switching labels, from Matador to Sub Pop, and toggling producers. I thought Pitchfork’s review hit the nail on the head, “Even when trying to describe what makes something like Rook’s "The Snow Leopard" a staggering listen, you're left with chin-stroking explanations, like how a trumpet's fanfare finally breaks the tension of John Congleton's immaculate production, but it lasts three seconds and takes four minutes to get there.”
On Animal Joy Shearwater seems to have buttoned up their respective lapel. In title and execution, the topics remain Earthy and soil-like, yet, when I first listened to the album, the catchiness and immediacy of the effort caused me to soil, myself. Everything’s a little tighter on texture and a little lighter in composition. Kind of like when I make chili for my friends that don’t like as much spice as I do—the new album has a squirt or two less of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce in favor of more tomato broth. With the other ingredients I use, the chili will still be distinguishably my own blend, unique to my taste, but in a way that’s accessible to others that don’t want the fire.
The live show Sunday night at Le Poisson Rouge was nothing short of a thunderously raucous wingding, though, noticeably devout of banjos, ominous falsetto ladled breakdowns and the beautiful Frank’s Red Hot Sauce drizzle that sets fire to my folk forest. I still got an amazing rock show. It was just 20 percent unique, instead of the 45-50-percentile of uniqueness I prescribed for the voyage.
Jonathan Meiburg took the stage, switching between keys and electric guitar, looking like a dorkier, disheveled version of Jack McBriar. Key lines hit hard. The drumming was underrated, yet ferocious. Stage banter was honed, but chipper. Opening on keys, Meiburg’s choice to begin with “Snow Leopard” about brought me out of my seat. As a guy who regularly pontificates, “Shearwater’s Rook is in my Top 5 albums of all-time,” it was a welcome initiation to a band I was long overdue to see live. Ten of the 18-song set was off Animal Joy. The highlight, for me, was the solo rendition of “Hail, Mary” which I previously thought of as a relatively easy going number, again, much to my dismay, and jubilation, featured a soul thrashing big-rock-finish that left nothing but the dissonant feedback of squawking hens and fluttering feathers.
So, perhaps I know nothing about Shearwater? You might as well pull the underwear over my head and conclude the “covered wagon.” But, there are pros and cons to that as well. 1) It’s always a good thing to get new underwear 2) perhaps at the underwear store they’ll be selling a copy of Animal Joy 3) A movie script scenario could shine its way upon me, in such a way, that I find a hopeless youth ogling over a copy.
I’ll be able to tell such a chap that the album, in fact, rocks. Factually.
The Snow Leopard
You As You Were
Pushing the River
Open Your Houses (Basilisk)
Run the Banner Down
Breaking the Yearlings
Star of the Age
Hail, Mary (solo)
Landscape at Speed
These Days (R.E.M. cover)