Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow

Austin band focuses in on violence and fear, finds their tightest songs in years

Credit: Sarah Cass

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg has an instantly recognizable voice, sonorous and smooth. That sound has built a loyal following for the Austin, Texas, band over six previous albums of subtly psychedelic indie rock and chamber-pop; the most recent, like 2010's The Golden Archipelago, have often tended towards Shearwater's spectral side, heavy on gorgeous instrumentals and light on strong hooks. So it's refreshing to hear them switch things up on this, their seventh full-length release, by writing more immediate pop songs without sacrificing their rich, thoughtfully placed instrumentation. Songs like "Pale Kings" put Meiburg's distinctive voice at the forefront, where it belongs, but back it with racing-heart drums that open up into expansive acoustic guitar-backed verses and choruses, allowing a catharsis that's rare in his often careful music.

In the past, the meaning behind Shearwater's work has been obscure – feelings and moods tend to prevail over specificity. The lyrics on Jet Plane and Oxbow, however, depict a world of violent conflict. "Quiet Americans" could be interpreted as a protest song, though it's cloaked in generalized angst. "Shake the memories off/Hide the evidence under/Piss on the world below/Like a dog that knows his name," Meiburg sings, rebuking Americans for our complacency in the face of the world's suffering. Anguish at the state of things creeps out elsewhere; see "A Long Time Away," where Jerusalem is described as "a dirty old town that some killing made holy." Harm and disaster permeate this album. There's "blood on the beach," "fences like knives" and "skinny dogs and safety glass… shattered in the street." Meiburg's trick is in making all this horror sound transcendent, letting his listeners ride his voice over and through the muck of reality.