The Austin group Shearwater is no longer remaining in the shadows of their big brother, Okkervil River. What was once considered an Okkervil side project has now reinvented themselves on their new album, Palo Santo. This marks their first record on which multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg has taken full songwriting and vocal duties, pushing this group to a whole new level.
I don't own a whole bunch of Okkervil River, and up until now my only real experiences with Shearwater were fairly passive. Some friends played me a few songs, which were ok, but Meiburg's drowsy, whispery vocals were easy to ignore. Well, those days are long gone. In fact, the band hardly resembles what fans have heard on past records. Their new album opens up with piano and something that resembles the sound of a plane taxiing on "La Dame Et La Licorne," which swells up to a beautiful climax of violin and Meiburg's soaring vocals. It is a glorious musical moment, and this is just the opening track!
The first song is followed by a shift to rock with "Red Sea, Black Sea." This stomping track shows just how much the band has grown musically. Up next is the song that got me sucked into this album in the first place, "White Waves." It was during this particular track that I was reminded of the later albums from Sunny Day Real Estate, primarily in the Jeremy Enigk-flavored vocals of Meiburg that shifts from fragile to bombastic as he wails "don't go traveling tonight, hold that child in your arms."
Another album highlight is "Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five." A pounding piano line leads to one of Meiburg's finest vocal performances as he bellows the chorus, backed by trumpet and a rigid drum beat. Again, the Enigk comparisons popped back into my head. This is, at the time of this review, one of the best songs I have heard this year. It is well crafted, with enough peaks and valleys to keep this song quite entertaining.
Palo Santo shows Shearwater as a damn great band, finally able to hold the spotlight on their own. They craft songs that can go from delicate to overpowering in the drop of a hat, yet always sounding comfortable with both musical and emotional ranges. Filled with tragedy and darkness, loneliness and misery, this is one of the finest albums I have heard in recent memory. Palo Santo is the sound of a band redefining their career.