If you were going on a road trip, this is the CD mix I would be really pushy about making you listen to on the way:
“Red Sea, White Sea”
There are two schools of thought on how to start a road mix. (Probably way more than that, but I can think of two.) Either start with something calm to ease yourself into the drive, or start with something upbeat and a little adventurous. I take option B. Any good road trip is a little adventure, which is something Shearwater singer/songwriter Jonathan Meiburg knows something about – and which informs a lot of Shearwater’s music.
“You As You Were”
I think it’s a good idea to keep up the energy, it’s going to be a few minutes before you hit the freeway. What is it about music and driving? It’s like going to two places at once.
A fun fact about Meiburg: he might be the only musician to have both Scientific American and Pitchfork in the footnotes of his Wikipedia page.
“An Insular Life”
Of course, the problem with this whole “start energetic” theory is that now you’re just stuck in traffic. Probably a good idea to hedge my bets a little and put something in there to take the edge off this maddeningly pointless nuissance of modern transportation. A lot of terrible things have come from imaging a simpler time, but so has a lot of great music.
There’s always the threat of another folk mini-revival around the corner. I mean, I like folk music, but at this point I like it better as an influence to be synthesized into something new and interesting than as a form to be observed. To get to the point, Shearwater has undeniable roots in folk rock (hey, you already heard the banjos), but they’re not tied down by them.
Ideally this would be the song you hear when you finally hit the open road. This is definitely a good open road song. It’s relaxed without being sleepy. It’s cerebral and just a little visceral.
“Ella Is The First Rider”
I’ve only mentioned Jonathan Meiburg so far. Of course, this isn’t one of those stealth solo projects, it’s an honest-to-goodness band (and a really good one). Shearwater has been around since 2001, however, and it is one of those bands that features a long list of ultra-talented collaborators (many of whom you’ll recognize from the indie scene – it’s a long list). In its earliest incarnation, it was a side-project of Austin, TX band Okkervil River, when Meiburg split songrwriting duties with Will Scheff, who is featured here from their debut album. They had a very different sound while Scheff was with the band, kind of an ersatz Wilco, but still very good.
“There’s A Mark Where You Were Breathing”
I get road hypnosis. There are vast stretches of American freeway that are nothing but lampposts and mile-markers and all you can do is think. I think it’s probably dangerous, but it’s my favorite thing about driving.
“Insolence” just might be my favorite song of the new millennium. It’s the perfect showcase for Meiberg’s dynamic vocals, building up from quiet introspection to quaking crescendo. There’s a little Bowie in his vocal pedigree. Not for nothing, Shearwater recently stopped by none other than our it’s-complicated-but-beloved mothership to do AV Club Undercover. Since they were there anyway, they decided to record a cover of the entirety of Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger. Meiburg writes for The A.V. Club about what the album meant for him here (where you can also find the songs):
Oh, yeah, the Scientific American factoid: when he’s not touring, Meiburg spends his time as a “semi-pro ornithologist,” as SA describes him in their interview. His curiosity and love of nature is palpable when he starts talking about birds (and in his music). The interview is well worth a read, whether you’re interested in the band or in the peculiar habits/evolution of the striated caracara:
Shearwater’s latest, Jet Plane and Oxbow, is a rare example of a band peaking after 8 albums, and I don’t mean that to disparage their previous output. If I hadn’t heard JP&O I would have said the same thing about their previous album, Animal Joy. And if I hadn’t heard Animal Joy, well you get the idea. This is a band that keeps climbing to new creative heights and I love that.
“Sing, Little Birdie”
Well, shit, this mix isn’t going to be nearly long enough to drive anywhere. Probably better burn a couple more cd’s just to be on the safe side.