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Shearwater: The Snow Leopard EP

Reviewed By: Chris O'Toole
Label: Matador Records
Format: CDS

Quiet shimmering stars of the American indie underground, Shearwater here release a companion EP to their short winter European tour – collecting highlights from this year's 'Rook' album, accompanied by a number of b-sides and live tracks. While not as cohesive as the aforementioned album, the piece still contains enough pointers to illustrate the continued development of this intriguing ensemble.

Originally initiated by Okkervil River members Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, the group has grown into a viable entity in its own right over the past seven years. Plotting a course over five albums Shearwater have developed a brand of melodramatic, baroque pop – incorporating elements of piano, guitar and percussion, but largely based around the soaring voice of Meiburg. Having left Okkervil River to concentrate on the Shearwater, Meiburg has taken the group to the forefront of the contemporary singer-songwriter scene also encompassing Will Oldham and Bill Callahan.

While melodrama and hyperbole are the currency most often cashed by Meiburg, his deep and effecting presentation allows Shearwater to sound at times as though wisdom were theirs alone. On opener 'The Snow Leopard' a gentle piano paves the way for the singer's towering introduction, allowing Meiburg to explore his favourite themes of ornithology. As a student of the subject, Shearwater's lyrics are littered with avian references, colouring the tone of each piece with symbolic majesty as the music ebbs and flows.

'So Bad' (originally by Baby Dee) slips briefly into completive melancholy, but never wallows. In the hands of others lines such as "Jesus got my Mom in there, and beat her up so bad" would sound puerile and conceited, but here they are given a ring of sage wisdom. Each slayable is as tightly controlled as the delicate piano line, creating a stately, majestic aura. The banjo on following 'North Col' lifts the mood again, reminiscent of Nick Drake in a more playful mood.

The final four selections are all live radio and performance pieces – incorporating standard 'Henry Lee' (also covered by Nick Cave and Peggy Seeger), 'Rooks', 'I was a Cloud' (book from Rook) and a reprise of 'South Col/The Snow Leopard'. What these interpretations illustrate above all else is the poise and control the band is able to bring to their performance. Even live the group is able to employ vibraphone, glockenspiel, harp, and banjo with aplomb – creating the eeriest of atmospheres with the minimum of sound.

This is a haunting and at times mesmerising collection. While the album 'Rook' clocked in at just half an hour, it was a cohesive and complete piece of work. This EP feels a little thrown together and opportunistic. It is likely to keep fans happy until the next release, but there are more rewarding points of entry for those not already familiar with the group.

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Winged Life - CD : Benjamin Howarth
Rook - CD : Benjamin Howarth
The Golden Archipelago - CD : Anthony Middleton
Animal Joy - CD : Benjamin Howarth

Magazine Articles
Shearwater: Scala, London, 3/4/2012 Chris O'Toole
Shearwater: St Giles Church, London, 22/11/2008 Anthony Middleton
Shearwater: Bush Hall, London, 17/9/2008 Anthony Middleton
Shearwater: Interview John Clarkson

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