Review Summary: And for the first time, Shearwater sound like mere passengers to the music
You never really hear about great cover albums because they're inherently hard to relate to. When an artist finds music they value enough to want to recreate, it’s from love and admiration-- they want to show others why they got to be so damned fascinated with it in the first place. But when I hear someone else’s take on a song, it may not be something I can understand-- hell, it may be something that only truly makes sense in their minds. I’m not one to question their experiences with such a song, but I’m not one to be able to share that moment with them, either-- because it was the sum of their experiences with it, which had nothing to do with me. So upon hearing Fellow Travelers
, I can’t help but wonder what Shearwater hears in the songs at hand, because I’m sure at a loss.
At least it's clear they’re special to the group. Every song on Fellow Travelers
was originally written by one of the artists with which Shearwater has toured in the last couple of years, and that list spans from Coldplay to Clinic, from Xiu Xiu to St. Vincent. In other words this record pulls from all kinds of music, because that’s what concerts with Shearwater were like. Whether packed to the brim with soulful folk music or huge pop tunes, the shows were all about melodies that nobody could forget. And so with that in mind, Shearwater constructed Fellow Travelers
to cater to that common aim, to rechannel their travel buddies’ anthems into something important to them.
What’s vital to Shearwater isn’t exactly so to the indie-rock group’s fans, though, which is where Fellow Travelers
finds itself in a sticky situation. Even if a cover album can be immaculately crafted, its contents may ring hollow to the majority of its listeners just because they don’t quite understand where it’s all coming from. On this record it’s evident Shearwater loves this music-- they have a great time providing it for us in this new context, but it doesn’t quite sit as well as it should. For starters, a few of the songs here were massive pop cuts when they were first written (Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven”, for starters,) and these songs lose their significance when channeled into Shearwater’s minimalist approach as a band. “Hurts Like Heaven” worked because its production did, from its loud drums to its shimmering guitarwork. The song’s melody is nothing special, but it’s presented in a way that dresses it up as new and exciting-- something a hushed acoustic Shearwater cover won’t pick up on. Likewise, St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” sounds sterile with a capital “s” because the song has none of the characteristics that made it so killer in the first place. The animated Annie Clark has been replaced with the subtle Jonathan Meiburg-- a move that dilutes the song’s eccentricity. Songs like these work because of their charismatic creators, and so it was inevitable that magic would be lost in translation.
At least the band’s rendition of David Thomas Broughton’s “Ambiguity” shines here, working with soothing ambiance and serene vocals from Meiburg. The track, only a little over three minutes, is condensed from Broughton’s six-plus, and yet it feels far more personable this way. Here it’s the kind of tune Shearwater could’ve made, and yet it came from a place that sounds more intimate, from a man only armed with a guitar. See, this is the kind of music Shearwater plays best-- it gives the band the space they need. It is a damned shame most of Fellow Travelers
opposes this idea, with songs that are defined too rigidly for the Texan reimaginists. They’re the songs Shearwater has heard countless times in the last few years, yes, so it’s no surprise they’d want to share the tunes with us. But we haven’t lived those experiences, we haven’t been to those gigs, so there’s only so much to Fellow Travelers
we can truly appreciate.