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Audio CD, June 3, 2008
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Austin's Shearwater return with the follow-up to "Palo Santo". "Rook" meditates on man's intersection with the natural world; the world after human beings are gone. A dark fairy tale encased in a cycle of songs. Jonathan Meiburg's bold, soaring voice still anchors the songs, which broaden his pastoral prog-folk chaotic celestial mindfuckery into new realms. Beyond the continuing touchstones of late Talk Talk, Nico, and John Cale, there are now allusions to Van Morrison and hints of Joni Mitchell. All set in a newly lush sonic gorgeousness of harp, strings, and woodwinds atop the magnificent rhythm section.
On their breakthrough release Rook, Shearwater provides each number with more dimensions than most bands demonstrate on entire albums. The Austin quartet's follow-up to 2006’s Nico-inspired Palo Santo springs to life with "On the Death of the Waters," which unfolds like a sleepy ballad, swells into an orchestral maelstrom, and contracts in a cluster of minor-key piano chords. Like the best opening tracks, it commands attention, but "The Snow Leopard," where they combine the grandeur of Sigur Rós with the flamenco-inflected heartbreak of Forever Changes-era Love, serves as the centerpiece of this ecologically-oriented song cycle. Singer/ornithologist/ex-Okkervil River keyboard player Jonathan Meiburg, who recalls folk troubadour Tim Buckley, and collaborators Kimberly Burke, Howard Draper, and Thor Harris work their magic through evocative imagery, modulated vocals, and fluid instrumentation. The opposite of ragged and spontaneous, the four-piece occupies the more rarefied realm of the theatrical and the cinematic, and it comes as little surprise to find that 2008 also marked their first foray into features (indie romance In Search of a Midnight Kiss plays out to Shearwater’s mournful melodies). Augmented by 14 guest musicians, Rook unfurls like a dream, a poem, and the soundtrack to a flickering old film about lost frontiers. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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Although the lineup includes familiar instruments like the hammer dulcimer and the banjo, this band breaks beyond the confines of "roots music"--here, old sounds create something entirely new, using traditional music in novel and unexpected ways. There's a feeling of alchemy to it. The music grows and changes as you listen, like a shifting image, a kaleidscope. It strongly recalls Talk Talk and Mark Hollis, as well as Thomas Newman's film scores.
I had the opportunity to see Shearwater perform ROOK live in its entirety last month, and there was awe in the audience at all the talent up there--the members of this band are brilliant instrumentalists, and Meiburg is a truly riveting performer. I was thrilled to find that same energy captured so effectively on this CD. It's a treasure.
This is hands-down one of the albums of 2008. There's simply nothing else out there like it. If you have not explored Shearwater yet, get started. You'll be richly rewarded.
First off, you get one additional track on the vinyl, although it's not immediately noticeable - I won't spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that it's there. It's one LP, but has a digital download code for MP3, if you'd like to use it.
As for the actual sonics, the CD is digitally clipped and is very noticeable in a tool like Audacity. When looking at the waveform, you can actually see where the sound is clipped off. However, whether or not the vinyl has the same issues is hard to say - the waveform LOOKS different, but it could just as easily have come from a digitally clipped source to begin with and the analog transfer is just hiding it.
I used "Century Eyes" as a good A/B test as it's fairly loud versus some of the other tracks. I ran the A/B test back and forth on two different players, and I honestly could not tell a difference - maybe the vinyl's "high" were slightly better, but that's about it. If there really is a sonic difference, my ears are not picking it up, at least not yet.
So, if you're looking for different sonics in the vinyl, I don't think you'll see a major difference with it versus the CD - but you do get one extra track and the nice vinyl packaging.
EDIT: Found a great tool for analyzing dynamic range called "Dynamic Range Meter". Ran it against my needle drop, and got an overall DR score of "11" (that's not too bad).
For me, Leviathan, Bound is one of the most haunting and eerily beautiful songs ever written or sung, but Snow Leopard, Home Life, and Rooks also stand out. There's not a bad song on this. If you want to rock out, or you prefer lyrics of the sardonic and detached variety, then probably Shearwater isn't for you. If you hate falsetto or find it tiresome, you'll no doubt find too much of it on Rook. Otherwise, you should give Rook a try. You might find yourself captivated, as I have.