Shearwater originally started out in 1999 as a collaboration between Okkervil River vocalist/guitarist Will Sheff and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg. It was a partnership that would also see Meiburg join Okkervil River, playing keys with them until 2008 during their creative peak, most notably on the recently reissued Black Sheep Boy and its two excellent follow-ups. The pair created three albums together in Shearwater before Sheff departed in 2005 to focus his energies on Okkervil River, leaving Meiburg as the principle songwriter.
With Meiburg at the helm, Shearwater would create their two finest works, with Palo Santo in 2006 and Rook in 2008. Both albums featured Meiburg’s emotive Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto combined with slow chamber folk and heavier blasts of art rock with passionate, half-shouted vocals which largely focussed on humankind’s bad stewardship of planet earth. After the dreamier and more ambitious but ultimately less effective The Golden Archipelago in 2010, Shearwater moved towards a more direct and rockier style on 2012’s Animal Joy.
It’s a shift that continues on Jet Plane and Oxbow, their second album of original work on the legendary indie label Sub Pop. After previously focussing on subject matter revolving around the natural world, Meiburg has written an altogether more political album this time with the conflicting feelings he has about being an American the central theme, describing it as an attempt to craft “a protest record that isn’t dumb or preachy”. Danny Reisch, who worked on their last two albums, handles production duties again but this time he’s also joined by film composer Brian Reitzell, perhaps best known for his percussion work with Air on The Virgin Suicides.
Jet Plane and Oxbow is Shearwater’s most immediate album in terms of song structure, featuring their poppiest choruses to date on a number of tracks including the lead single “Quiet Americans”. The album also sees the incorporation of more mechanical grooves, as well as electronic elements featuring more heavily than ever before. There’s also some fine guitar work to be found, with the dreamier side heard on “Backchannels” and the dirtier on the excellent “Glass Bones”. The Remain in Light-era Talking Heads inspired “Fillaments” is arguably the album highlight and one among many 80’s influences running through the album, which includes the likes of Peter Gabriel and David Bowie’s Scary Monsters.
Despite there being plenty of great moments, Jet Plane and Oxbow suffers a dip after its very good opening half with a couple of tracks that, while adding to its variation, are also quite bland in comparison with the rest of the album. “Pale Kings” is an emotive and energetic, yet largely unmemorable acoustic driven number. Further momentum is lost during the softer “Only Child”, as well as on “Wildlife In America” towards the end of the album. The second half of the album does however feature the aforementioned “Glass Bones”, and the excellent half-shout-a-long “Radio Silence”, both bringing the album back to life before the slow burning “Stray Light At Clouds Hill” brings to a close Shearwater’s best album since 2008’s Rook.
Top Tracks: Backchannels; Filaments; Glass Bones; Radio Silence
Released: 22 January 2016
Label: Sub Pop
Producer: Danny Reisch