Photo by James Hamilton
Everyone loves a good cover, but for an artist it can be tricky. You have to pay a little homage to the original, no matter how small, but to truly make it great, you have to make it your own. On their new record Fellow Travelers (out November 25), Shearwater did just that. They lovingly re-imagined and reinterpreted songs by friends and colleagues, artists they’ve worked and toured with. From Clinic to Coldplay, Xiu Xiu to Denton’s Baptist Generals, Shearwater does justice to the originals whilst making one heckuva record of their own.
Shearwater began life as a collaboration between Jonathan Meiburg and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. The Okkervil frontman eventually exited, and Meiburg continued to steer the Shearwater ship. Starting with their 2001 full-length debut Dissolving Room, Shearwater has eight records under their belt including great records like 2008’s Rook, the self-released and highly-improvised Shearwater Is Enron from 2010, and last year’s Animal Joy (one of my personal favorites from 2012). Now Fellow Travelers makes nine. But the album didn’t start off that way. “It was meant to be a small thing, maybe a home-recorded EP, to release between Animal Joy and the next full-length,” said Meiburg on label Sub Pop’s site. “Re-imagining and renovating songs by the bands we’ve toured with was like leafing through a scrapbook, and brought back the highs and lows of a decade of touring, from dives in Oklahoma and squats in Slovenia to the Fillmore West, the Bataclan, and the MGM Grand.”
The beauty of doing a record of covers of folks you know, love, and have worked with is that not only are you familiar with the material, but you’re probably pretty like-minded as well. And that notion’s all over Fellow Travelers. The artists may be wildly different, but they share common DNA. From starkly beautiful songs like Wye Oak’s “Mary Is Mary,” to the bombast of the aforementioned Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven,” to the brooding, sinewy “Natural One” by Folk Implosion, Shearwater cracks the code, and finds the common thread. But there is one Shearwater original on the disc, sort of. “A Wake for the Minotaur” was a B-side to a Record Store Day 2013 single Shearwater made with Sharon Van Etten. Her voice provides a very nice counterpoint to Meiburg’s high tenor. The song itself is hushed and lovely, with a spare accompaniment of little more than a gently picked and strummed Spanish guitar. The austerity lets them explore the line between pain and bliss, giving it an almost sacramental air. It’s appropriate because on Fellow Travelers Shearwater kneel at the altar of their peers, and the band finds its own soul in the process.