Shearwater, the Texan indie orchestra headed by Jonathan Meiburg (also of Okkervil River), has nailed the big dynamic surge, the transformation in a breath from breathy Talk Talk-ish imagery to strident rock choruses. Their most fragile, paper-thin washes of sound are always ready to burst into flames; their most triumphant, drum-punctured, piano-pounding frenzies are ever poised to cut to nothing. Meiburg’s songs surge and ebb like natural elements—tides, storms, gusts of wind—wild and untamed, however carefully they are structured and played.
Opener Jennifer O’Connor, also on Matador, also trying out new material, opens for Shearwater this evening. She is mid-set when I arrive, standing alone amid the multi-instrumented set-up for the headliner with just a guitar and mic. Her voice is warm and dusky and appealing, unadorned and honest, with just a slight trill of vibrato on the held notes. But her songs are all about endurance, stolidity, resignation, and she seems, herself, to be in a holding mode. She stands pretty much stock still, strumming simple chord patterns and murmuring lines like “Days slip by/ I’m amazed at how fast they fly,” and “Days became years.” The passage of time and the looming of death are, obviously, a big part of the human condition…and perhaps one of the reasons we make music at all. But it’s not much fun, is it? O’Connor, I am thinking as she closes, could use a little bit of Shearwater’s bright dynamic shifts in her act.
Tonight Shearwater is on the second night of its tour for upcoming album Rook, out on Matador June 3. It is for sale at the counter, Meiburg notes, for the first time at any show anywhere. Shearwater is just coming off a NYC show with Michael Gira (who sometimes borrows drummer Thor Harris for his own records) and a full string quartet. This is more of a real-band show, not stripped down exactly, because how could it be with two trumpet players in tow? But if it is just Shearwater tonight, without the local philharmonic, the sound is still dense and varied and complicated, a far cry from the twang and three-chord theatrics usually on hand at places like the Iron Horse.
The band draws heavily on the new album, opening with the spooky, bowed dissonance of “South Col”, Meiburg sitting quietly at a Nord Electro keyboard as the song’s strange shapes evolve. Then, with no warning, the piece kicks into a big 4/4 beat with bass and picks up two clarion trumpets in unison. After this, it’s back to Palo Santo, Shearwater’s 2006 album (partially re-recorded, expanded, and re-released in 2007), for a pounding, percussive, xylophone clicking “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five”, trumpets surging in flamenco flourishes from the back.
For “Rooks”, the new album’s first single, Meiburg switches from keyboard to electric guitar, and bass player Kim Burke from her skinny, elongated upright to electric, as well. A shivery lattice of notes—two keyboards and Meiburg’s guitar—introduces the piece, backed by a rock-solid, hard-popping beat. My impression, during the show, is that the new songs are more tethered to rhythm than the older ones, maybe a shade more rock. However, later, now that I’ve got the record on repeat, I’m thinking that’s just the way they’ve adapted the new material for performance. On the CD the songs are nearly as free-flowing and organically rhythmed as Palo Santo, a record that seems to move as it will, not according to any rigid time signature.
Shearwater sticks entirely to Palo Santo and Rooks, the two most recent records, hitting “White Waves”, “Red Sea, Black Sea”, and, in an encore, the stunning “La Dame et la Licorne” from the previous record. At one point, Meiburg asks the audience if there’s anything they want to hear, and someone calls out “Whipping Boy” and then “(I’ve Got a) Right to Cry”, both from Winged Life. Meiburg shakes his head and says he hardly even remembers those songs, which is a shame, really, because they are both quite good. There does seem to have been a break of some sort after Winged Life, though, as Will Sheff left the band and Meiburg took it into a more imagistic, orchestral direction. That’s the band that’s here tonight, even if Meiburg does sometimes shift to old-time-y banjo.
The new songs are harder to puzzle out, being unfamiliar, but there is a rather lovely rendition of “I Was a Cloud” and a spectral, hammered dulcimer-accompanied “Leviathan, Bound”. The band is continually switching roles, Meiburg alternating between guitar, keyboards, and banjo, the guitarist picking up bass and keyboard, one trumpeter subbing on tambourine and some sort of electric keyboard, while Thor Harris comes up front for turns on hammered dulcimer and clarinet. All of which makes a medium-sized band (six people) sound like a huge one, and allows for doubling and counterpoints on key parts.
The regular set closes with the aggressive, guitar-slashing, free-drum-pounding “Century Eyes” from the new record, and after a break, Shearwater comes back for one more, the previously mentioned “La Dame et la Licorne”. This is maybe the prettiest, most haunting, most Spirit of Eden cut from the ghostly Palo Santo, so it is somewhat of a surprise to hear it explode, “Day in the Life”-style into a fugue-state of pounded, strummed, feedback-altered fury. It’s the most dramatic dynamic shift yet in a night that’s been full of them, and it leaves you breathing hard just to keep up as the song bucks and tosses like a wild animal. Delicate is fine. Ethereal can be lovely. But how much more precious do these qualities become when they’re side by side with pedal–to-the-floor abandon?