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Shearwater – 'Fellow Travelers' album review

Jonathan Meiburg's folk-rockers cover songs by acts with whom they've toured, with decent results

Touring can have a strong effect on musicians. The disorientating, isolating, monotonous un-realness of it all made the Stones ‘Torn and Frayed’, made Dylan feel like he was in constant limbo, and made Bono comment that he really missed his pet dog – which was only noteworthy because he didn’t actually have one. As for rococo Texan folk-rockers Shearwater, a decade on the road has developed in them a deep affection for their ‘fellow travellers’: the acts with whom they’ve shared highways, stages and service station sarnies, intensely private moments and banana skin-level practical jokes. And naturally they’ve got to know each other’s songs pretty well too.

On this covers album with a commendably filial spin, Jonathan Meiburg and his band pay tribute to past touring partners from Clinic to Coldplay. Usually this sort of mutual appreciation and musical recipe swapping is the domain of limited release split singles (most recently from Tame Impala/Flaming Lips and Blood Red Shoes/Pulled Apart By Horses). But Shearwater, initially intending just to release a home-recorded EP as a stop-gap between 2012’s ‘Animal Joy’ and the follow-up they’re now recording, have gone the whole hog. There’s an additional twist, too: each covered artist was invited to appear on the record, but contributing to another song instead of their own.

Kindred spirit and knowing a song like the back seat of your tour bus pay mixed dividends. Folk Implosion’s low-slung and sinuous ‘The Natural One’ and Xiu Xiu’s scuzzy and het-up ‘I Luv the Valley Oh!’ are clearly beloved indie anthems, and get little more than a respectful spit and polish. On the other hand, Shearwater’s fresh but sympathetic ear finds the possibility of echoey industrial beauty in the perfunctory pop rush of Coldplay’s ‘Hurts Like Heaven’, and the English folk melodies flickering in the embers of one of Wye Oak’s especially dirge-like slowburners, ‘Mary is Mary’. Here Meiburg’s Antony-esque vocal blooms from a careful, cracked whisper, and a song by a little known Baltimore duo comes off sounding like something Jonny Cash might have wanted to record for ‘American IV’.

It’s sweet to know that it’s Clinic doing the effects programming on the closing cover of The Baptist General’s folk-rocker ‘Fucked Up Life’, and that the chirrups you probably missed on the Xiu Xiu track are house sparrows and bulbuls recorded by David Thomas Broughton in North Korea. It’s also nice just to hear the latter’s ‘Ambiguity’ getting a second-party look in, with its simple guitar line translated to harp: Broughton’s particular territory is the circus of human frailty, which could be a thematic throughline for the whole album.

But because Shearwater are yet to go overground like Arcade Fire or The National, ‘Fellow Travelers’ is very much an exercise in preaching to the converted. ‘[When] every other place and person you see will be long gone tomorrow, if not five minutes from now,’ reads Meiburg’s sleeve-note essay, ‘it makes the other bands you’re travelling with seem like the only other three-dimensional beings in the world.’ In singing other people’s songs, he seems to have made his most personal album to date – but that doesn’t make ‘Fellow Travelers’ a great covers collection, or really much more than a pretty good Shearwater record. Buy this album here

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