“If we can’t have fame, I guess, at least we can have notoriety.” While Jonathan Meiburg writes this in the extensive liner notes for Fellow Travelers, the latest record from his band Shearwater, I would pick another word. Respect, maybe. Beloved in the press and by numerous other bands (I once had a good chat with Los Campesinos! based on my Shearwater T-shirt), they’ve never alchemized it into even moderate indie fame. Maybe notoriety would be a good next step: as Watain proves, shock pays the bills better than respect. Hell, Meiburg’s already written countless songs about birds and the elements, why not just pump that up into genuine Pagan nature worship? Now we’re talking.
Belied by the lushness of its studio records, Shearwater is a road hound, putting down countless odometer miles on good years, and it’s to this pursuit that Fellow Travelers is dedicated. Nine out of the record’s 10 songs come from bands Shearwater shared stages with over the years, often radically rearranged and toned up and down in volume. As such, Fellow Travelers is not really a measure of Shearwater’s writing so much as its orchestration skills. Thankfully, their approach goes further than “take a loud song and make it acoustic” and its vice versa equivalent. David Thomas Broughton tune “Ambiguity” gets stripped down further, powered by a harp and field recordings Meiburg collected in the Falklands. “Cheerleader” alters some of St. Vincent’s phrasings and creates a country-rock stomper with backing vocals from Jesca Hoop, a section of whose “Deeper Devastation” becomes the aching piano intro of “Our Only Sun.”
In using the songs of others, Meiburg and company are able to fight their natural inclinations toward certain forms and sounds, and allow them to try new things. In the press release for lead single “I Luv the Valley OH!” from Xiu Xiu, Meiburg writes with palpable giddiness about playing a three-pickup Gibson SG through a distorted Marshall amplifier stack, a style his music never gave him space for before. The record is mixed, for the most part, like it’s being recorded from the back of a bar, and so we hear gain on the vocals, and the drums sound huge and blown out, as if the snare is placed right against its microphone.
In other words, this is a very ‘live’ record, even though it comes from a studio and shows tampering in its corners. To its detriment, the album also flows like a set with no sense of staging, repeatedly dead-ending its own momentum by following barn-burners like “I Luv the Valley OH!” and Clinic’s “Tomorrow” with beatless acoustic and piano tracks that, while good on their own, rupture whatever speed Shearwater had accomplished. Not that the record needs speed, necessarily, but the rampant high-low-high-low dynamic doesn’t work as well as it could. Perhaps this fills a thematic purpose: in the liner-notes, Meiburg writes about the joys of performance and the lulls of travel, one always in hand with the other. If so, it comes out exasperatingly on record. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.
The liner notes may actually be the most insightful part of this record, and that is no slight to the music. I am a big fan of Meiburg’s writing at venues like the Appendix and the Quietus, and so it’s fascinating to see him put the alien experiences of road life to words. Like the best essayists, he concludes not with an exclamation but rather an evocation: speaking to a Texan author at a party, he hears the story of people thousands of years gone who traveled to a spot where the Rio Grande meets the Pecos to initial their tenuous existence with pictograms that last still today. Much as these enchanters followed ephemeral pools to cross the desert, the touring band chases ever-shrinking markets and fans that appear and dissolve with the seasons. Only thanks to one another, it seems, they don’t burn out, dry up, fade away. Fellow Travelers pays tribute to these companions in many forms. That dedication, more than the music, may be its biggest accomplishment.