There are musicians who would flinch when accused of doing it “for the birds”, reducing the act of making music to a mating call, but Jonathan Meiburg and his band ornithologists in Austin, Texas’ Shearwater would find delight in such an accusation, after all, a shearwater is a species of seabird. Their passion for the natural world and avian life is continued in Rook, their highly anticipated follow-up to 2006’s dazzling Palo Santo.
Shearwater was formed in 1999 by Meiburg and his bandmate in Okkervil River, Will Sheff, as an outlet for the quieter songs they were working on. In 2005 Meiburg left Okkervil River as a touring member, and then permanently, to concentrate on Shearwater as a full-time project. Now as both bands cut successful paths for themselves, Okkervil River have become the literate cultural commentators, writing songs about poets and porn stars, while Shearwater exist on the river beds and in the wild, away from the decadence of bright lights and big cities.
Like its predecessor, Rook is an expansive, ambitious, and beautifully orchestrated record. Its bleak apocalyptic artwork expresses Meiburg’s intent perfectly. When the press release for Rook speaks of ‘themes within meditate of man’s intersection with the natural world: the hunter and the prey; the extinction of the species; the world after human beings are gone’ you soon realise this is going to be no ordinary album. “On the Death of the Waters” finds Meiburg alone at the piano, his tremulous tenor floating above the notes on the piano, pausing briefly as the band in a wail of instruments unexpectedly?come to life, and then are quickly gone. Meiburg remains unmoved, absently playing out his thoughts on the keys as the songs ends. As opening tracks go, it’s astonishing.
A lithe guitar line and a swift drum beat announce the beginning of title track, a dark Hitchcock-ian vision of rooks “crashing into aerials/tangled in the laundry line/gathered in a field/they were burned in a feathering pyre/with a cold black eye”. Rooks are said to be able to able to sense the approach of death, and this songs seems to herald a moment of impending doom. “Leviathan, Bound” is two minutes and fifty seconds of transcendent, orchestral beauty, sounding like Mercury Rev at their unearthly peak. “Home Life” is Rook‘s centrepiece track, a soaring seven minute epic, and where the instrumentation often fits around Meiburg’s wavering falsetto and piano, the drumming of Thor Harris anchors the track, like on the martial “Lost Boys”, adding a crisp focus to the arrangement.
Elsewhere “Century Eyes”, offers a quick electric buzz, finding Meiburg full of fury, his voice a forceful yelp, whooping and hollering as guitars squeal and kick, lifting the band onto their feet, averting the pervadingly mournful mood and sailing forth into Okkervil River territory. There’s more than a little of Thom Yorke in Meiburg’s playing on “The Snow Leopard”, reminiscent of the dark drone of Amnesiac‘s “Pyramid Song”, but where Radiohead were content on building artificial soundscapes, Meiburg and Co have created an album that is earthy, ornate and alive, unbound by technology and its mis-inventions. An analog allegory of man’s interactions on the environment and each other, Rook is nothing short of a masterpiece.