Shearwater - Fellow Travelers

7/10

Last years’ Animal Joy was Shearwater’s most commercially successful record ever. Next year, there’s supposed to be a proper full-length follow-up. In between the two, Jonathan Meiburg & Co. had intended to release a frivolous homemade EP full of covers; but instead, we’ve go an entire LP of reinterpretations. The songs that the Okkervil River splinter sect have selected are just arbitrary ‘throw a dart at a map’-type choices – each cut available “reimagines and renovates songs by bands they’ve travelled with.” Suddenly the title becomes obvious.

The Texan folk-rocksmiths have amassed a broad anthology on this record. Covers albums tend not to be revered in many (or any) ways, reserved instead for gimmicky compilations like the Punk Goes… series, or by joke acts like Richard Cheese. Then, of course, there’s “The Spaghetti Incident?”, which really shouldn’t be spoken about at all… basically, covers albums aren’t the most secure way to garner respect. How many people were won over to Guns’N’Roses’ camp thanks to their rehash of The Stooges’ ‘Attitude’? However, Shearwater’s picks at least have a vague ‘theme’ congealing them together, and really, how bad can you make Xiu Xiu or St. Vincent?

In a way, although these songs aren’t their own, this is a very personal record. It’s a kind of oral biography, like Rant by Chuck Palahniuk or Capote, but via music. An aural biography, perhaps. Shearwater are rekindling memories of their past, reliving previous tours by paying homage to tour chums/kindred spirited troubadours and recounting valuable snapshots of the past via pertinent songs of the era. It definitely appeals to the hardcore fanbase of the band – a casual listener or fan wouldn’t necessarily be interested in that aspect, nor would they fork out money to hear a band they’re not paramours with play other people’s songs. It’s a record for two bases – Shearwater and the pals they’ve covered, and dedicated disciples. It’s kind of self-indulgent, but that’s okay. Just because it’s got a narrow sliver of the market to aim for, that doesn’t mean it’s not of a high quality.

“I Luv The Valley OH!!!”, originally Xiu Xiu’s intense, brooding baby, is transformed into a mighty rock-anthem mammoth, chock full of grinding axe riffs and stadium percussion. Meiburg’s booming baritone blooms amidst myriad noises that sound like they should be echoing over a 90,000-strong festival audience. It’s very much a distant, distant relation to the original, but it’s good nonetheless. Shearwater’s take on The Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life” is a pungent folk-rock cut, flecked with country twangs and gospel organs; the locomotive motorik ensures it doesn’t dawdle, and instead it’s a pacey, uplifting number.

The rendition of St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” isn’t inherently bad, but it’s hard to hold a candle to the original. Meiburg’s tried to reappropriate it, but it’s essentially futile. On the whole though, he’s done a good job of rearranging other artist’s pride’n’joy – even making Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven” interesting. None of the tracks surpass the original (except probably Coldplay), but it doesn’t feel like the intention to ‘one-up’ other bands here. It’s an intimate, nostalgic affair for a small minority. For others, it’ll be less vital. Ultimately, it does the job it’s supposed to – it’s a stop-gap release to keep us salivating while we wait for the next instalment in Shearwater’s canon.