The Austin band Shearwater has transformed itself from an art band that relied on the patience of its audience in a game of tension-and-release into a full-on rock band. As a CD release gig for the new album Animal Joy proved last night at Antone's, the band seems intent on winning over new fans by pummeling them with a three-guitar assault, a double-drums blitzkrieg and a choirboy voice that howls like a child in Lord of the Flies.
Rewind to January 2010. Shearwater had just played their "Island Arc" trilogy at a church in Austin. The back-to-back-to-back performance of 2006's Palo Santo, 2008's Rook and 2010's The Golden Archipelago – critically lauded but commercially lackluster albums – signaled for frontman Jonathan Meiburg the close of a chapter. Core band members went their own ways – drummer Thor Harris hit the road with Swans and bassist Kimberly Burke (Meiburg's ex-wife) dug into life in Boston as a playwright, with a new family.
Meiburg, meanwhile, entered a crummy practice space, turned his electric guitar way up and set about writing something personal, something that would tap into his emotional intelligence, something that would convey times in his life when his blood was pumping in overdrive.
"I wanted the new record to have a body, not just a brain," Meiburg said by phone a couple weeks ago. "I meant it to evoke a moment in which you realize that the course of your life has to change, whether you like it or not, and that your old life has to die so that a new one can begin. There's pain and also exhilaration in breaking free and becoming yourself."
Those ideas are manifested in songs like "Breaking the Yearlings," a big, ominous anthem with a hair-raising undercurrent of keyboard that sounds like a church organ, and the majestic, piano-driven "You As You Were," in which the line "I am leaving the life" is sung over and over (nine times in a row last night), until the words combust and Meiburg is symbolically reborn.
The main difference between old and new Shearwater is that the older version had in Harris a percussionist with a less-is-more approach, whereas the revamped band has in drummer Danny Reisch, who recorded Animal Joy, a player who likes to pop and mash his skins. (Harris was in attendance last night and was saluted by new Shearwater, sparking onstage banter about making a t-shirt for Reisch that reads "Where's Thor?")
"We talked about making the rhythm section much more upfront and precise, rather than distant and gauzy," Meiburg said. "We also forbid ourselves the use of strings or other orchestral instruments, a rule we bent only for a shrieking clarinet that sounds like someone bending a steel beam in half."
That added power made "Dread Sovereign" and "Insolence," two autobiographical songs that might have slow-burned into oblivion with the old band, into creatures who fight to the death. Combine it with an arsenal of rabid guitars and you have a perfect rock song like "Immaculate," a short-circuit take on striving to be perfect.
Trying to decide which band is better, the old or the new, might leave you confounded. Don't worry: it did the same for Matador Records, who balked at Shearwater after the Island Arc trilogy.
"We love Matador, but our contract came to an end," Meiburg said. "And they didn't want the demos for the new record."
This opened the door for Sub Pop to sign Shearwater. Ironically, Matador co-founder Gerard Cosloy wrote in promotional materials for Animal Joy, "Just give ‘em the fucking Grammy already!"