Shearwater: Fellow Travelers

The liner notes may actually be the most insightful part of this record, and that is no slight to the music.


Fellow Travelers

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2013-11-26
UK Release Date: 2013-11-25

“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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.