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Shearwater - Rook

Released on Matador Records, 6/3/2008

According to the beautiful world wide web, in addition to being an experimental indie rock band from the heart of the sunny south -- Austin, to be exact -- a shearwater is also an open ocean-dwelling seabird. The name comes from their flight technique where, stiff winged, they move across wave fronts with little to no movement required. Nary a flap nor a flutter from these hearty feathered beasts is necessary, even when migrating up to 20,000 km a season. Wonder of wonders! I feel this same authority and presence of belief within the music of Shearwater.

Up until a week ago I had never even heard of them, though they have been around since 2001 and have released as many records in as many years. There seem to be countless completely un-ironic grime/hyphy/easy-listening bands out there, that aside, Shearwater seem to have avoided what most southern rockers embrace and revel in -- a balls to the wall rock and roll steeped in twang, unabashed machismo and a ripper solo here and there. Of course, I'm generalizing and I have not heard their earlier albums but, I must say, I was surprised by this sound alliance.

Rook opens with the song “On The Death Of The Waters”, an almost ballad-like piano and vocal piece introducing listeners to singer Jonathan Meiburg’s haunting falsetto vocal style. At once I worry it will be too much, what is this ballad? Where is he leading me with this voice? Can I take it? And then an awesome thing happens -- the song explodes into a magical adventure of sound and strength. Horns, harps, oboes, cellos, all aided by the bashing and strumming of a guitar not quite in tune yet creating the perfect counter balance to the preconceived quasi-order of the orchestral sound

And then it’s over, the ballad returns, creating one of the most satisfying and validating moments I have experienced on record so far this year. Next we have the title track “Rooks”, the obvious single, but in the best way possible. Not because it will appeal to the kids at the teen center in Spokane and the dental hygienists in Albuquerque all the while being licensed as the new “sound” of Apple computers, but because it is a damn good song. It has a driving beat, a comforting melody line and, let's face it, a great hook. I am over that being a bad thing in rock.

We all love to feel the songwriter has made the right choice in notation, lyric, and sound -- for a song to go exactly where our minds, racing ahead, wish for it to end up. There is comfort in that, and simple joy. Rook perseveres, boasting a gorgeous score, thunderous and steady percussion, and an impressive -- to say the least -- vocal range; Meiburg sounding at once like David Bowie, Jello Biafra, Television’s Tom Verlaine, and Tiny Tim without a falter, flat or flaunt. Each lyrical line has a genuineness and an unabashed sincerity that is surprising with how forceful and emotive they can be -- almost theatrical but halting before the Elton John comes out. “Century Eyes” is a perfect example of this, Meiburg sounds like a rodeo caller while the rhythm gallops on, provided by the aptly named Thor Harris, steady and severe, as Meiburg whoops and hollers – unapologetic and free.

Shearwater have created something lovely within Rook. A stunning complexity of adorned beauty and grace, it is able to slide through the speakers like so many notes tumbled from a page, like their namesake floating above the oceans whole. This album is sure to top many a best of list when the year wraps up.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars