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Shearwater’s Undiscovered Greatness

March 13, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I praised the new Shearwater album, The Golden Archipelago, even though I hadn’t taken the opportunity to listen to it yet.  I did so because of my love for the band and my respect for their ability to make amazing music.  I’m happy to report that as of this writing I have listened to Archipelago multiple times now and it is every bit as superb as I hoped.  And so, dear reader, I’d like to use the next 300-400 words as an exploration of this relatively simple premise:  Shearwater is one of the best rock bands in the world. 

If you already agree with this premise, rock on.  Feel free to explore other posts on our humble little blog because you and me are alright.  If you still have some lingering doubt, please allow me to convince you.  I’ll begin by admitting that I’ve never seen this band live, so I have no clue how their music comes off on stage.  I’ll also admit that when I first heard Shearwater, I was not enamored with lead singer (and principal songwriter) Jonathan Meiburg’s voice or singing style.  But over time and repeated listenings, I have grown to love Meiburg’s shrieks, hollers, and whispers.  So Point One in the Shearwater praise corner:  Meiburg has one of the most expressive voices in rock music.  He has impressive range and can genuinely communicate fear, anger, hope and hopelessness.  The listener is able to understand the spirit of a song through the way Meiburg sings, regardless of whether we completely understand the words.

Point Two is the complex nature of Shearwater’s music.  On Archipelago, as on Palo Santo and Rook before it, the music is more than just guitar, bass and drum.  Choral chants, piano, organ, varying percussion, and string arrangements give the music a richness and depth that isn’t always found in more straightforward rock albums.  One of the most effective tools that Shearwater uses in its arsenal is the forgotten art of contrast in volume.  Songs can begin in a whisper, build into a roar and then drop back into a muted hush, all to great effect.  The listener becomes invested in the richness of the movement in tone, rather than each song being delivered at exactly the same decibel level.

Meiburg & Co. don’t just throw instruments and arrangements around for the heck of it, however.  They understand the value of restraint and seem to know instinctually that there are times where the most ardent passion can be communicated through soft and subdued tones.   They also bring what is Point Three in my argument:  Clarity of vision.  Each Shearwater album knows exactly what it’s about and where it’s going.  There is not movement for movement’s sake, rather each album is like a book and each song a chapter, all building to a definite climax where the story is resolved.  Shearwater knows where they want the listener to be at the end of the album, and if you let yourself get lost in the music you’ll feel like you’ve been on a journey as the last note fades away.

There are perhaps a handful of groups working today that can boast a three-album run as fine as the last three Shearwater releases, which is another reason why I consider them one of the best.   They are definitely mood music, and not appropriate for all occasions.  But when you’re looking for intelligent, cinematic rock that will challenge your mind while stimulating your ears, you won’t find a better band.

  1. Laurie permalink
    March 13, 2010 4:23 pm

    Oh wow..wait until you see them live. Just as amazing..if not better. Yeah, I’d say even better actually.

    • Caleb permalink
      March 13, 2010 4:34 pm

      Thanks, Laurie. I’ve been trying to make that happen and just can’t seem to get the concert gods to shine on me. I’m holding out hope though.

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