Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg wants you to listen, but you can't sing along
There's a Jonathan Meiburg in everyone's life. Nine out of the 10 things he'll share with you are so esoteric or obscure that you stare, slack-jawed and dumb, as the reference sails over your head. That's when the 10th opinion or factoid lands and suddenly you're off in an exhilarating whirlwind of chatter. This dance of exclusion and engagement isn't limited to conversations: It's the defining characteristic of Shearwater.
Meiburg, frontman for this once-quiet little brother to Austin music monolith Okkervil River, comes across as a Platonic nerd. Possessed of warm good looks and the potential to be incredibly charming, Meiburg seems more content to study and create and hold forth on exactly those two subjects rather than pursue life's more carnal and mundane exploits. In other words, he's beautiful, brilliant, and hyperintellectual almost to a fault. Fitting that his music can be described in precisely the same language. For Shearwater, never before have the personalities of its frontman and his music mirrored each other so closely as on the group's third Misra Records release, Palo Santo.
Since its inception, Shearwater has languished in the shadow of Okkervil River, despite the fact that the only thing the two bands have in common is Will Sheff, who's shared songwriting duties with Meiburg in Shearwater since 2001's The Dissolving Room. What began as a one-off project took on proportions of its own and more members, bassist (and the former Mrs. Meiburg) Kim Burke, drummer Thor Harris, and multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper which has proven both a blessing and a curse.
"When Will and I started Shearwater, things were really different for us," Meiburg recalls over a late-night coffee at Spider House. "We both had bands that were floundering or they were frustrating us in some ways and we wanted an outlet. Things have really changed since then. Okkervil does everything that Will could ever want his creative outlet to do. It's been a very natural progression."
That natural progression has meant that, as Okkervil River's acclaim continues growing nationally on the strength of last year's Black Sheep Boy ("Black Sheep Boys," Music, April 1, 2005), Sheff's time has been directed elsewhere and Meiburg has assumed center stage in Shearwater. All the songs on Palo Santo are his, and his is the sole voice heard on the album. Shearwater has finally emerged from beneath the River.
"The thing you don't want to end up with is the 'side project' label, because side projects are, for whatever reason, almost inevitably watered down. It's like, 'Oh this is like the band I like except not quite so much,'" Meiburg laughs. "If that was the case, there'd be no point in there being this band. It would just be Okkervil Lite. And I don't write songs like Will's. My songs are different."
In fact, on Palo Santo, Meiburg's songs are different from, well, his own. The new songs have a different energy, inviting an almost synesthetic reaction, the sense that the music has a different hue to it than what came before. Compare the opening tracks of Palo Santo to those of its predecessor, 2004's study in maudlin Americana, Winged Life. The latter starts off with "A Hush," which is fairly representative of Shearwater's body of work: soft, beautifully arranged, with Meiburg's fragile tenor skimming the rhythm's ebbs and flows.
Jump to this year's opening track, "La Dame et la Licorne" ("The Lady and the Unicorn"), and you're greeted with an eerie, endless tone of static, snippets of short-wave radio transmissions looped into the background. Gone are the rootsy banjos of yore, the gentle caress of the violin. There's only the stark stroke of a few piano keys and that creepy drone. "Something is breathing in the air," sings Meiburg, "something is moving in the water." With these first lines, he introduces a sense of foreboding, painting an aural image of a man raging at the elements in the gloaming. The rest of the band chimes in and an almost painful nostalgia sets in, amorphous and haunting, and there's no turning back. Meiburg's voice has never sounded so confident, so powerful, and it's a control that sustains itself over the course of the album. Meiburg agrees enthusiastically with the praise for this song, this album.
"It sounds most like what I want a record to sound like," he nods. "It has its own coherent world that it inhabits. I'm proud of that song because it sets up the ground rules in terms of what you can expect and what's going to happen for the rest of the record.
"I wanted a balance between things that were very pretty and things that were ugly, but not in the sense that I've got a pretty song and I'm going to put a bunch of strange noises in it to throw you off. That can be a lazy approach there's gotta be something to hang a tail on. When we approached it with the arrangements, we had a lot of these sort of crumbling, organic sounds, sort of like ivy growing over a door."
Shearwater's coherent world is more than just aggressive greenery taking over the architecture, it's uniquely Meiburg's, given the sidelong references to his other, nonmusical life as a scientist. Palo Santo takes its name from a type of tree found in the Galapagos, where Meiburg spent a summer doing field research on the caracara, the South American breed of falcon about which he wrote his recently completed master's thesis in biogeography. The natural world permeates Palo Santo, seeping into the margins, corrupting the urge to define and categorize the music. Better yet, just like Mother Nature, Palo Santo has its secrets.
"I like the way on this record how the voice will come real close to you and tell you something that's quite clear and you understand, and then it disappears or retreats or gets obscured so you only get bits and pieces of it," he enthuses. "There are a lot of records I like that are like that, where you don't get every word and you're left to fill some of it in and to experience the whole thing as a sound more than 'Here's the singer, here's the backing music.' Sort of the anti-karaoke."
Meiburg's voice and narratives are in no danger of being obscured or replaced by the atonal chimings-in of the huddled masses. To listen to Palo Santo is to be in conversation with Meiburg himself; all you can do is watch and listen as he takes you down dark, unfamiliar paths, often running ahead of you, only to bring you out to the hazy light on the other side. In the end you will be disoriented, perhaps a little irritated, and thoroughly in awe.