Shearwater, Animal Joy
There’s a wonderful, jaw-dropping intensity, not to mention a full-throated confidence, to Animal Joy, the latest full-length from Austin’s Shearwater. The same core people may be at the reins — frontman Jonathan Meiburg, drummer/vibraphonist Thor Harris, and bassist Kimberly Burke — but make no mistake, this Shearwater is a far, far cry from the late-night fragility of 2002′s Everybody Makes Mistakes.
In its place, Meiburg and company thunder their way through even the more minimal, restrained tracks here, with lyrics and a delivery that has this strangely mythic quality to it, the same feel you get from early Crooked Fingers albums.
Opening track “Animal Life” sets the stage with little preamble, showcasing Meiburg’s otherworldly, stately vocals over deliberate, up-front acoustic guitars, distantly-booming drums, and plinking keys, steadily revving up to Arcade Fire-scale arena rock all while forcing your head to bob in time. I never would’ve pegged this band as the type to make music you could pump a fist in the air or raise a lighter too, but hell, there it is, and it’s incredible.
Then there’s album high point “You as You Were,” which starts off delicate but insistent, reminiscent of my favorite unsung Canadian band, Ketch Harbour Wolves. The track seems understated at first, but then — oh, hell yes — those arpeggiated keys come in, and my heart skips a beat. From there Shearwater carves its way upwards to an epic level similar to that of “Animal Life,” and it flat-out makes my jaw drop.
Despite the album’s title, there’s also an intriguing sense of menace throughout Animal Joy, a feeling that something bad and inevitable is coming right around the corner. “Breaking the Yearlings” is a good example, with its murky bass and half-falsetto/half-snarl vocals driving the otherwise low-key rock of the track somewhere dark and seemingly dangerous. “Dread Sovereign” is stomping and ferocious, for its part, and there’s also the sinister, slowly-shifting murk of “Open Your Houses” (the structure of which makes me think of Midnight Oil, incidentally).
The band turns up somewhat for “Immaculate,” a driving rocker that’s thrown forward by Burke’s surprisingly overfuzzed bass. The song veers into Under the Bushes, Under the Stars-era Guided By Voices territory, helped along by Meiburg’s vaguely “British”-sounding vocals, albeit with less stoner/slacker haze and more Jam-like defiance — and hell, that’s never a bad thing.
Things work less well on the slower-moving tracks, unfortunately, like “Insolence,” which is defined by its strangely rubbery percussion, Morphine-like bass, and oddly Peter Gabriel-esque feel; it’s not a bad song, strictly speaking, but not as easy to grab onto. The same goes for the samba-inflected “Run the Banner Down,” which is beautifully quiet and soft but tends to drift past without me really noticing its gone.
Shearwater saves things further on, mind you, charging back into dark, stoic rock with “Pushing the River” — which again reminds me of Ketch Harbour Wolves and which explodes into a perfectly fiery crescendo — and aiming for the heavens with appropriately grand, gorgeous closer “Star of the Age.”
Those twinking strings(?) and keys, that determined rhythm, and those soaring, reach-the-sky vocals, they all combine to paint a picture of a band that’s set on climbing, ever upwards, and fashioning its own unique, mysterious, magical mythology around itself as it goes.