Although there is no doubting the sincerity and artistic ambition that Jonathan Meiburg has invested whilst leading the ornithologically-obsessed Shearwater over the last decade, the band’s oeuvre has sometimes lacked in easy nesting places for newcomers needing to acclimatise to the contradictory fusion of the ornate and the austere. This new covers-based album could however change the situation. Originally envisaged as a low-key mid-length release to tide fans until a bona fide sequel to 2012’s Animal Joy LP, the 10-track Fellow Travelers has instead become an album-sized statement in its own right.
Featuring nine covers and one original composition, the collection finds Meiburg and co. primarily honouring the songbooks of contemporaries and past touring companions. Intriguingly, the artists being covered were also asked to contribute to the recordings, on the proviso of not appearing on their own songs. Consequently, Fellow Travelers is a curious kaleidoscope of songwriting, players, voices, styles and textures refracted through the Shearwater prism.
Despite the overall melange approach being a little uneven, there are some genuine delights to be found within. Moreover, the looser and less over-thought approach certainly opens up the Shearwater sound, which broadly veers from the delicate to the crunchy across proceedings. Hence in the latter corner, we’re treated to a faithful but wider-screen reading of The Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” a scything epic expansion of Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv The Valley OH!” and a joyously imperious interpretation of Clinic’s “Tomorrow.” However, it’s arguably the more up-close pieces that offer up the majority of keeper moments. Therefore, the elegiac harp-adorned take on David Thomas Broughton’s “Ambiguity,” a mournful makeover of Wye Oak’s “Mary Is Mary” and a gorgeous Meiburg-penned duet with Sharon Van Etten entitled “A Wake For The Minotaur” (previously released as the flipside of a Record Store Day 7” earlier this year) supply the long-player with its graceful heart.
Arguably the most outstanding track of all though is saved until last. Fully in the spirit of the record’s collaborative cross-referencing ethos, a rewiring of The Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life” finds members of Clinic providing a serenely gliding backing track beneath meditative acoustic picking and Meiburg’s high tones, to deliver a transcendental curtain-closer.
Whilst Fellow Travelers could ultimately have benefitted from some more cohesive and warmer production values (perhaps alongside the jettisoning of an awkward heavily-treated spin on Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven”), as a more open-door invite into the Shearwater aviary it’s certainly welcoming.