I think it’s safe to say no one expected that Fellow Travelers, the eighth album from Shearwater and the second for Sub Pop, would be a covers record. Releasing an album consisting almost entirely of other artists’ work may raise some accusations of laziness or writer’s block. And we’re not talking about cover kings Rod Stewart or Michael Bublé here: Shearwater, a critically acclaimed indie rock group, expects us to digest a Coldplay cover. Sure, last year’s Animal Joy was not as charmingly naturalistic as the band’s breakout disc Palo Santo, nor as consistently brilliant as the Austin band’s wintery folk-rock masterpiece Rook--the record that justified frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s decision to leave Okkervil River for his similarly literate and folk-leaning side project. But a follow-up with only one original song begs the question: is Meiburg struggling to continue to deliver as a songwriter? And furthermore, is this a record that anyone really needs to hear?
No and yes.
Fellow Travelers’ finest moment is the Meiburg-penned “The Wake of the Minotaur,” a slow-burner featuring Sharon Van Etten, with whom the band memorably covered the Stevie Nicks-Tom Petty duet “Stop Draggin My Heart Around.” There’s a forlorn allure to Meiburg and Etten’s vocal performances here when delivering lines like “I’ll breathe in the silence / I’ll laugh til I die,” while accompanied by little more than acoustic guitar. The track’s strength lies in the musicians’ profound ability to fill the void of instrumentation with voice alone, like a captivating soloist in a vast empty cathedral. Meiburg’s liner notes, gorgeously and unabashedly detailing life on the road, are another treat for those pining for more personal output.
The remaining nine songs on Fellow Travelers consist of tributes to acts with whom Shearwater has toured: nine different artists, one cover version from each artist’s catalog. Unsurprisingly, the renditions that work best are those by artists most sonically similar to Shearwater. Indie folk duo Wye Oak’s “Mary is Mary” is abbreviated from its somber seven-minute drone to a concise but moving piano ballad. British folkster David Thomas Broughton’s “Ambiguity” is given a softer atmospheric rendition, while “F***ed Up Life” by Sub Pop label-mates Baptist Generals adds a rambling liveliness to close out the record.
Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley OH!” is the boldest decision for Meiburg and company to cover; it’s one of the most visceral and personal indie anthems of this century, featuring an unforgettably raw vocal performance from Jamie Stewart. It’s also the one cover that simply does not work, try as Shearwater might to turn it into a straightforward power anthem. The original eschews conventional song structure and instrumentation—a masterful exercise in tearing out one’s heart and handing it, still bleeding, to the listener. The version here makes the mistake of attempting to circumscribe its emotion with rock convention.
Meiburg is already at work on his next record for Sub Pop, tentatively titled Girls of the Green Zone. Until then, Fellow Travelers works as a pleasant stop-gap between records, with the band tipping its hat to some of the remarkable artists with whom it has shared the stage. Chances are you have heard of St. Vincent and Clinic already, so the record doesn’t go too far in providing exposure for new artists. But there’s a rigidly heartfelt manner in Meiburg’s performances and in his notes. Along with “The Wake of the Minotaur” landing among his career highlights, that more than justifies the record’s existence and 33 minutes of the listener’s time.