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Shearwater - Rook

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Artist: Shearwater

Album: Rook

Label: Matador

Review date: May. 30, 2008

Austin's Shearwater has been around for the better part of a decade, but with frontman Jonathan Meiburg stint playing keyboards for Okkervil River (he only recently quit the band) and with Okkervil's emergence as a popular indie act, Rook is pretty likely to reach a much wider audience.

The two bands don't actually sound alike at all, but Shearwater apply the grandeur of Okkervil's lyrics to their music. Meiburg's manneristic singing is instantly recognizable but hard to pin down (maybe he sounds like... Jeff Buckley? Bryan Ferry? Mark Hollis?), and the songs are delicate without being cheesy. At their best, they make the old seem new again - "The Snow Leopard," for example, borrows its pomp and harmonic ambiguity from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song," but Meiburg's jerky, nervy vocal delivery is his own.

Shearwater try much harder than most indie groups to make every moment matter. Meiburg never lets a word go; he aims to wring every drop out of each syllable, so much so that it's often difficult to tell what he's saying. (Okkervil River's frontman Will Sheff used to sing sometimes for Shearwater but doesn't anymore; on previous Shearwater albums, the contrast between Meiburg's singing and Sheff's rough-and-ready voice was striking.)

Rook features a lot of lovely stuff, and "Rooks" and "Leviathan, Bound" in particular are mysterious in a way few rock bands can conjure. If I have one complaint, though, it's that these songs aren't as massive as they might be. The swaggering "Century Eyes," for example, seems like it ought to blossom into a five-minute epic, but it ends before it even really gets going. The strings and brass that appear throughout the record are tasteful, but they're always in the background. And at just 39 minutes, the album as a whole feels a bit slight.

None of this is to suggest that Shearwater should embrace classic-rock cliches as a way of filling out their sound. If Rook is as ambitious as they feel they can be without adding excess, then that's a good tradeoff, but their sound right now fits them like a pair of shoes that are a size too small.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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