For the final ten days of June, I’ll be counting down the ten best albums that fell within my radar during the first half of 2016. Each day, I’ll reveal the next album on the list along with an informal review. This will lead to July 1st, a major release day for albums, when I’ll post an updated version of my Most Anticipated Albums of 2016 list. Enjoy!
#4: Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater
Released January 22 by Sub Pop Records
It’s hard for me to admit that the latest Shearwater album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, might actually be a better album than 2012’s Animal Joy. As much as I’d prefer not to admit it, Jet Plane is better at nearly every turn: a higher quality recording, lyrically and vocally assured, sonically varied, etc. For most people familiar with the band, 2008’s Rook might be the major point of comparison, as that record was the critical peak that brought Shearwater into public awareness. For me, that album is Animal Joy, a classic and essential record that perfectly accomplishes everything “indie rock” should. The only competition Animal Joy has seen during the past 4+ years of being my undisputed favorite indie rock record was The Silver Gymnasium by Okkervil River, ironically the band from which Shearwater started as a side project. For their lyrics and their musical visions, the bandleaders of each–if my opinion matters for anything–are the reigning kings of indie rock. Though as Okkervil River’s Will Sheff progresses further toward intimacy with each new release, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg is only becoming more grandiose. Jet Plane and Oxbow expands the band’s palette not by abandoning Shearwater’s hallmarks such as the hammer dulcimer or the orchestral percussion choices, but by adding to the mix a bedrock of warm synths. Producer/drummer Danny Reisch and film composer Brian Reitzell pull these disparate ingredients together, while ultimately it’s Meiburg’s songs that make this album the triumph it is. While his voice may still be an acquired taste for some, Meiburg’s choruses are bigger than ever, leaving no song beholden to its chorus. “Radio Silence,” for example, gets through four verses’ worth of lyrics before arriving at its catchy two-word hook. These songs command the choruses rather than the other way around. If the moody verse and hopeful chorus of “Backchannels” were isolated from one another, it’d be hard to guess they belonged in the same song; put back together, it’s incredible how smoothly the transition works. Perhaps the greatest improvement made here is in Meiburg’s lyrics, where he ditches the animal imagery that filled past albums (blame his master’s degree in ornithology, the study of birds) in favor of making directly political and cultural statements. This becomes especially clear on the pulsating second track, “Quiet Americans,” seemingly a critique of the country’s meddling with worldwide affairs: “Where are the Americans? Our dimmed conscience…lying alone in the eastern light…the guns in silhouette.” Immediately following is the album’s most energetic and possibly best song, “A Long Time Away,” which begins with the line, “Shuddering brakes on the road to Jerusalem…a dirty old town that some killing made holy.” If there’s a flaw to Jet Plane and Oxbow, it’s that the first three tracks are almost too good for the rest of the album to stand up in comparison. Yet each track has its many strengths, coming together for a cohesive whole that, in a discography of eight very strong albums, might be Shearwater’s best yet.
Stream the full album on Youtube via Sub Pop.
Read the review for album #5.