Shearwater - Palo Santo

Firstly, let's get the clichés out in the open. It's not very often you come across an album that wields enough emotional strength to knock you flat. A collection of songs that reaches into your chest, Indiana Jones-style, and rips your heart right out; seemingly unconsciously. But yes, you guessed it, Shearwater's Palo Santo just happens to be one of these rare releases. Like Sigur Rós before them, Shearwater has created the soundtrack for every facet of human life. Love, loss, anguish and happiness are all here, among multiple other essential emotions which make human beings such complex creatures. This album paints them all - vividly, faithfully and extremely beautifully.


Starting out as a simple side project for Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff and bandmate Jonathan Meiburg, the Shearwater family has grown, through the addition of several members (including Kim Burke on double bass and Thor Harris providing percussion), and refined their dreamy melodies over four releases between 2001 and 2005. However, Palo Santo is the album they've been promising to produce all the while and represents the ripest fruits of their five exploratory years.


Perhaps the most striking feature of this outfit is Meiburg's vocals. At his softest, he recalls the melancholy tones of Antony Hegarty (Antony & the Johnsons) and, when impassioned, he channels Jeff Buckley in full Mojo Pin flight. Opener La Dame Et La Licorne showcases just what Meiburg is capable of. It is a stark piece that relies principally on the dynamics between Meiburg's dulcet tones and complimentary piano stabs. However, the entrance of the drums seems to change the direction of the piece and this reviewer would argue that perhaps, in this case, percussion was unnecessary.


Nevertheless, it is a lovely song and one which establishes the Shearwater mood effectively. And mood is truly the central feature of this album.


White Waves is one of the album's most accessible tracks on first listen. It weighs grit with delicacy almost flawlessly, the distorted guitar mingling with bursts of piano to produce an effect that is intense and yet strangely gentle. Johnny Viola, too, with its savvy pop sensibilities and great hooks provides strong crossover ground for Shearwater. The almost Neutral Milk Hotel horn section stands out here and points to another potential influence on the band's often pained sound. This is, however, one track where the slightly more forceful vocals of Will Sheff might have lent the song a greater impact. Some tracks, including this one, wear their Okkervil River roots on their proverbial sleeve and lead you to wonder how they might have sounded in the hands of Sheff's other comrades


Boasting both the most varied chord progression and the strongest vocal take, Hail, Mary is a definite highlight and another inclusion that makes your gut twist for reasons you can't quite seem to pinpoint. However, it is closing track Going is Song that begs more than any other for overuse of adjectives. And it is difficult not to oblige – this song is sublime. Harris' gentle use of cymbals and the arpeggiated guitar line recalls the most tender moments of Art of Fighting and there is an almost lullaby quality to the song that brings this delicate album to an ideal, dreamlike close.


This is Shearwater in a nutshell. Structurally and emotionally complex, yet retaining the kind of quietness that makes you lean in and listen intently. To draw upon the Sigur Rós comparison once more, Palo Santo is an album to be absorbed, not merely listened to. Experience it.

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