Shearwater – Fellow Travelers

In recent times it’s increasingly been the fashion for musicians to do their covers project sooner rather than later in the career; an unintended by-product of this is that it allays accusations of writer’s block, since artistic burnout doesn’t typically happen until the creative sunset years. Supporting this theory is Shearwater’s ninth album, which adds an intriguing twist to the format: bandleader Jonathan Meiburg invited members of the groups he was covering to guest on the record, provided they did not play on their own songs.

As you might imagine, the results are mixed. On the thumbs-up side: the Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life,” boasting sundry programming and instrumental effects from Clinic, if you can believe that, and a sweeping, psychedelic anthem of no small emotional impact; Wye Oak’s “Mary Is Mary,” so delicate and luminous – that’s Jesca Hoop on ethereal harmonies – you could easily mistake it for being an early Shearwater composition; and Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion breakout hit “Natural One,” easily the least Shearwater-esque track here, transformed into a thumping, dissonant slice of glam-rock, with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner adding backing vocals. Less convincing is the actual Clinic song, “Tomorrow,” thanks to a somewhat muddy mix and a meandering arrangement (the Generals’ Chris Flemmons’ shouty vocals don’t help); and Xiu Xiu’s “”I Luv the Valley Oh!” that pounds and struts and huffs and puffs so theatrically you’d swear it was auditioning for an off-Broadway production.

To be fair, much of the album grows on you; I came to appreciate both the conceit and its nuances over repeated listens. It’s certainly not something you’d use to introduce the band to a novice fan, however, and Meiburg himself admits in the notes that the record was originally to be a between-albums EP. Still, in its oddball brashness, Fellow Travelers helps cement Shearwater’s rep as a notable player on the Amerindie scene.

Fellow Travelers
[Sub Pop]