Shearwater is ENRON

(Matador; 2010)

By Kaylen Hann | 19 November 2010

I’m about as big a Paul Rand fanatic as earthly possible, but seeing his ENRON logo—however charmingly hand-drawn in wobbly-ass pen—attached to a Shearwater album was nothing short of a grimace-twinged shock. Though, for an experimental, ambient-leaning release from an indie folk band, you’d think more about it would be shocking. Recorded on the heels of The Golden Archipelago—a pull-out-all-the-stops, ballad-heavy album that for the most part rested on thematic, almost documentary-like content—a purely instrumental album released under Shearwater’s temporarily (?) assumed name, ENRON…well, it is a surprising release. It’s just not surprising coming from a band like Shearwater.

From its upstart, Shearwater has been a collaborative effort with an arsenal of orchestration: frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s now former wife Kim Burke, Thor Harris (of Swans), and even, initially, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. After leaving Shearwater, Okkervil River followed a more-or-less straight-line progression from raw to refined: from the rough and tumble, dusty measures of country rock in songs like “Whole Wide World” and “Kansas City” to the glossy folk rock of, well, everything on The Stage Names (2007). While being just as affecting a band, Shearwater was always a quieter, more closeted venture. And I expected Meiburg to take Shearwater in a similar path, if a year or so in Sheff’s wake—if, also, with a little more timidity, given the delicate hand prevalent in earlier songs, and still touchingly present in albums all the way up to Rook (2008).

Turns out that’s just not the case. After the warm reception Rook and Archipelago earned the band, it made sense for Shearwater to hunker down, tighten up their songcraft, and solidify a loyal audience from the amplified attention they’d gleaned. Maybe even break out the banjo again and give us a taste of the old folk. Instead: an experimental and instrumental album. Which is sometimes a measure that keeps me held at arms length from a band. Namely, because there’s no voice pulling me in.

This album has been undressed of what I’d always perceived to be the Shearwater mainstay, the linchpin of their affectations and evocative muscle: Meiburg’s voice. And to that extent, the presence of Meiburg as we knew it; where was Meiburg if not wholly in his voice? There’s no vocals, no lyrics, no ballads, and even the tracks themselves are left untitled. Other than the band’s name(s) and album title, there’s not one word to hold onto. And that can be an alienating thing. However, in this instance, it is paired with a number of exceptionally personal gestures to compensate: the hand-made cardboard case; the clumsy artwork; a signature on each album. Even the album title and the lopsided ENRON logo (can they really use that?) is hand-drawn.

The experiment has had plenty of lead-up. Shearwater’s live shows over the last handful of years have incorporated an increasing abundance of experimental interludes, instrumental solos, and post-song expansions. What used to be a song or so spilling over with some upright bass play and Thor having-at whatever instrument is in his hands at the time, has blossomed into full-length improvisations. Which began to occur more than once in a show. And then began to occur in almost every song in a set. Shearwater is ENRON proves that, while The Golden Archipelago allowed space for these interludes, and while all sat attentive through these lengthy sets, the band’s just not anywhere near tapped out.

Essentially: if you have seen them live and were blissed-out at their prolonged outros, intros, and everything instrumental in-between, you’re going to like this album. You may not even miss Meiburg’s voice (though I do). Sure, you can’t see them exchanging their adoring glances and grins during the tracks, but you can hear their distinctive chemistry. Despite what seems aesthetically unfamiliar for us, they seem to know what they’re doing and they know how to respond to one another to the extent their improvisations are flawlessly camouflaged. Each of the ten tracks demonstrates a collective, deft hand, from electronic to archaic, ambient to more melodic. The electric pulses and atmospheric wheedling about—it leaves me impressed. Craving Meiburg’s voice and poetically detailed lyrics, sure. But still impressed.

The shearwater (their namesake’s bird) can fly an oceans’ worth of distance. To that effect the band’s name grows more appropriate with every release. Delicate folk, to folk-rock, to cinematic experimental folk, to experimental ambient…I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of their genre-spanning capabilities or grasped the long-term arc for Shearwater the band. Hopefully the band members won’t go too far off in their individual directions.

And hopefully Meiburg will pick up a microphone again soon. My sentiments can best be summed up by Rhymefest, re: ODB—“What’s the world without Dirt? Just a bunch of fuckin’ water.” What’s Shearwater without Meiburg’s vocals? Just an ocean of very listenable, instrumental chemistry. A chemistry that is maybe the only purely consistent, recognizable element in the band.