August 2008

Shearwater - Rook
Matador Ole 777-2
Format: CD
Released: 2008

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

The cover art on Shearwater’s second release for Matador shows a desolate landscape, and, because the leader’s name is Jonathan Meiburg and the drummer’s name is Thor, I was sure the source was Scandinavian. Nope. The musicians are from Texas. After listening to Rook for a few days, though, I think I understand where my original impression came from. Shearwater feels like a European band, from the vague undercurrent of dread that runs through the lyrics ("And the ambulance man said, ‘there’s nowhere to flee for your life," Meiburg sings on the title track) to the melancholy conveyed in the singer’s voice. Meiburg is singing about a civilization that is dying ("the fading day of our star") and his personal anguish fills Rook.

While there are echoes of other musicians in Rook -- Talk Talk’s later work came to my mind -- Meiburg uses unusual instrumentation to flesh out his songs, underlining their emotional and lyrical intentions. The trumpet in the title track, for instance, creates drama, tension, and dissonance. For "Leviathan, Bound," Meiburg takes the opening line of Van Morrison’s "You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River" and adapts some of that song’s musical ideas to his own ends. Morrison’s 1978 album Veedon Fleece, where "You Don’t Pull…" first appeared, is a good touchstone for Rook. Oddly, sometimes battily mystical, Rook has a poetic density that invites careful investigation.

Rook is well recorded, with a rich tonal palette and a wide dynamic range. At first it will strike many as maddeningly pretentious. Perhaps it is, but unlike many pop albums I’ve heard recently, it keeps drawing me back.