From here, in the cold and gloom of a Wellington winter, Austin, Texas seems both a long long way away, and a warming thought of open blue skies and warm sun beating down. A romantic notion, for sure, but turning that thought to music the sense of romance looms large about ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’.
Still, it is Texas, and though Austin is renowned for a diverse, liberal, alternative music scene, it can’t be denied that it’s most associated with music that brings the twang, the dust and the mythic sunshine of the country – names like Willie Nelson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Austin Lounge Lizards spring to mind.
What doesn’t immediately spring to mind is the cold, spare beauty of an album like Rook, the 2008 album from Shearwater. But, this Jonathon Meiburg-led band does hail from Austin, Texas. Despite having a sound that you might think, on first listen, hails from much colder climes. Canada, perhaps, or even somewhere European. For while there are hints of Americana on here, and a good lashing of Tex-Mex horns, but overall the album doesn’t sound like something you’d expect to come from the Lone Star State.
But from Texas they are, formed in 2001 by Meiburg and his then Okkervil River bandmate Will Sheff, as an outlet for songs that were quieter than those normally played in the environs of their main band. While Sheff and Meiburg eventually left to focus on the growing popularity of their respective music projects, there are still similarities with their sounds. Both bands bring a focus on clear instrumentation, primarily acoustic guitar based and bringing in other acoustic elements to add colour, and in both Okkervil River and Shearwater each bandleader’s respective singing voice and lyrical style is intrinsic. And a strong element that sets them apart.
While Sheff’s songs are grounded in real-world scenarios and stories inspired by literature, on Rook Meiburg’s lyrics take more from the natural world and environment. From the album’s title and title track, through songs such as ‘Leviathan, Bound’, ‘I Was A Cloud’, and ‘South Col’, Meiburg’s high, achingly beautiful voice weaves sound-pictures of humankind not always sitting peacefully with the natural world. Animals appear frequently in his songs, as metaphors or harbingers, as symbols of mystery or psychopomps leading us beyond.
There’s a strong sense of foreboding to Rook, too. From the dark figure swarming with rooks on the album cover, to the pile of the dead black birds being burnt in the title track, their black eyes warning humankind of the destruction of the natural world we’ve brought upon ourselves. Oxen appear more than once across the album too, mentioned as animals bound to doomed servitude of pointless struggle.
Musically, the album’s grounded in often acoustic instrumentation, built from a bass of solid, natural-sounding drums, piano, double bass and acoustic guitar, with layers of horns or electric guitar thrown on as emphasis. The music’s completely there in service of the Meiburg’s song and voice, building as he builds his soaringly high voice to an aching climax, pulling down low to allow his gentle croon to sweep over the soundscape, bursting into a firm and jangling rock when the song requires it.
The production is nearly flawless; and thankfully the album pulls back mostly from what might’ve been an overpowering urge to drench it in reverb to create the sense of open space. The songs and the instrumentation doesn’t need that gimmick – subtle playing, fluid arrangements and the counter-play between Meiburg’s keening voice and the full, fat drums and double bass provide the aural openness required of such pastoral songs.
‘The Snow Leopard’ from this album was my first experience of this band, a YouTube clip of the song being tagged for me on Facebook by someone who knew enough of my musical tastes – and my liking of Okkervil River – to recommend it to me. And it’s still one of my favourite songs by this band, though I’ve added a fair few more of their albums to my collections over the years.
This song, with its heartbreakingly beautiful vocal, sympathetic instrumental backing, and lyrics from which you can grab snippets of meaning, about the moon, about black rocks, about rising from forests and oceans.
Mysterious. Enigmatic. A dangerous beauty. Like the animal of the song’s title.
Beer match: This is an album to seep into with something rich, sweet, warming; to ward off the chill and foreboding carried by this elegiac music. But with enough hops to piece through the dark malt like Meiburg’s vocals piece above his band’s rooted sound. And I’ve got just the beer in mind – the Bloody RIPA from Marlborough’s Renaissance Brewing.
This dark rye IPA scooped up the top prize at Malthouse’s West Coast Pale Ale, and was my favourite too. A thick, rich, sweet dark malt grounded the full-on hops that soared above with the aroma of pine and grapefruit. Quite delicious, but also like quite hard to get hold of. If you see it, buy a bottle. It should last you about the 38 minutes it takes to listen to this album…