26 Apr 2016

Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 26 April 2016

Shearwater Photo: Sarah Cass

Nick Bollinger checks a lush 80s-style set from Austin alt-rock group Shearwater.

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Shearwater is an indie-rock band from Austin, Texas, who started as an offshoot of Okkervill River - another indie-rock band from Austin, Texas - to play the quieter songs that didn’t fit the Okkervill River repertoire. Fifteen years on, Shearwater is a fully-fledged band with a dozen albums in its catalogue, and the latest is as big and commanding as anything Okkervill River ever did. A working knowledge of all eleven of their earlier releases isn’t necessary to appreciate it, but a soft spot for early 80s Bowie and 80s production styles might help.

Jet Plane and Oxbow has such a shiny, synthetic surface –burbling Moog arpeggios, big reverberating drum beats, tinkling glockenspiel sounds  – that it takes a listen or two to realise that what is being depicted in these songs is not some science fiction cyberworld. Initially a platform for two songwriters, Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater has, over the years, become solely Meiburg’s baby. As well as being a fine singer and musician, he is a qualified ornithologist – hence the fact that his band is named after a seabird – and a concern for the natural environment is the thread that runs through his writing.

But none of that’s initially obvious, even in a song he calls ‘Wildlife In America.’ Meiburg has referred to being affected by an interview he read with David Bowie around the time of his Scary Monsters album, in which Bowie referred to that record as ‘social protest music’, and that might be a touchstone for Meiburg’s own writing. On top of his big Bowie-esque melodies, which he delivers in a full, trained-sounding tenor, his words have something of Bowie’s obliqueness about them, never punching the subject on the nose but rather defining it through a series of strong sensory impressions. This then, is Shearwater’s version of ‘social protest music’. In ‘Wildlife In America’ Meiburg’s got childhood friendships and Egyptian empires and small-doses of amphetamine all bound up together, but enough to reinforce the idea of some sort of paradise lost.

Perhaps the closest Meiburg comes to delivering his message directly is in the song he calls ‘Quiet Americans’. ‘If all the world is ending,’ he asks, ‘Where are the Americans?’ Even that title has a ring of Bowie about it.

Shearwater is one of those bands with a seemingly ever-changing lineup, and the roll-call for this latest record includes film composer Brian Reitzell, probably best known for his Lost In Translation soundtrack. His contributions no doubt have something to do with the record’s lush, cinematic textures. Yet I think there is another, quieter record that could make more of these songs, putting more emphasis on Meiburg’s lyrical and vocal strengths. Shearwater’s Jet Plane and Oxbow is a grower, though. It’s been out since early in the year and I feel like I’m just starting to grasp what a deep and detailed piece of work it is.

Songs featured: Prime, A Long Time Away, Wildlife in America, Filaments, Quiet Americans.

Jet Plane and Oxbow is available on Sub Pop Records