Plumbiferous Media

The Golden Archipelago – Shearwater

Feb 25th 2010
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The Golden Archipelago - ShearwaterShearwater
The Golden Archipelago
Score: 88

Austin indie band Shearwater’s last album, Rook, was our 2008 top album, and deservedly so. Now, almost two years later, Shearwater’s put out their newest album, The Golden Archipelago. Even though it will naturally be compared to such an excellent album, The Golden Archipelago stands up well, combining the gorgeous musical detail that lies at the core of Shearwater’s music with a new shift towards more typical rock dynamics. It’s not quite the masterpiece that Rook was, but it’s still very good.

From a purely instrumental standpoint, The Golden Archipelago is just as masterful as its predecessor, and in some cases, like the first couple tracks, the two albums are frighteningly similar. Direct comparisons aside, Shearwater pays very close attention to both the minute details and the larger concepts and sections. The low strings of “Meridian” and the tremolo of “God Made Me” are excellent additions that subtly shape the track, but “God Made Me” also has one of the best larger transitions, about two thirds of the way through, of the entire album. All together, the musical decisions on The Golden Archipelago succeed more than a few times at leaving mouths gaping.

The Golden Archipelago also has a nice level of diversity. While a few tracks towards the end tend to blend together, the vast majority of the tracks remain their own unique experience. Sometimes this can get slightly odd; the raucous percussion of “Landscape at Speed” works counter to the otherwise relaxed track. But for the most part, diversity is a highly welcome element, given the narrowness of the niche genre Shearwater have happily invented for themselves.

Jonathan Meiburg’s vocals are as beautifully done on The Golden Archipelago as we’ve come to expect from him, soft and subtly powerful in a way that infuses Shearwater’s music with energy. Meiburg’s voice is at the same time a reliably constant element of the music (and an always excellent one) and one which is fully capable of effortlessly defining the direction of the music. In this way, Meiburg sings the vivid images of The Golden Archipelago, his voice an essential part of the expertly formed sound.

The birds flying through the organic landscape created by Shearwater are as appropriate as ever for a band named after a seabird – and as majestic and poetically illustrated as possible. When Meiburg sings of “effortless gulls in the wake” on the album’s final track, it’s impossible not to imagine the scene he’s created, the mixture of nature as represented by the gulls and “the violent surging of life.” As “Black Eyes” urges the listener to “Come down from the lion’s back / Call down to the endless sleepers / Give life to the dimming days / That run in an endless stream now,” the track builds, intensifying the already striking image. The Golden Archipelago, filled to the brim with similar images, is nothing less than powerful and resonant.

Rook was a defining moment for Shearwater. Significantly cleaner and more focused than much of Shearwater, or it’s parent band Okkervil River’s previous works, Rook created an entire new area for Shearwater to explore, and The Golden Archipelago readily engages in this exploration. While its sound is not as new as Rook‘s, it’s further developed, and still extremely interesting. It has lost some power, opting instead for careful musicality, but this tradeoff seems to have worked well for Shearwater, now able to claim yet another success.

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