Some musicians have some nerve, messing with the formula for 'country' music. How dare they upset the house that George Jones, Hank Williams Senior and Johnny Cash built? How dare they break from the twangy tradition that's stood long and proud for nearly a century?
I welcome those musicians with open arms.
It started with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and last year's Welcome Convalescence by South San Gabriel set the standard for a new kind of "country" music: spaced-out, slightly stoned slow songs with a hint of electronica/rock/whatever you might consider not country. One of these days, these artists are going to kill the "alt-country" genre with one fell swoop, or they'll simply let it die from neglect, as their music is something that's beyond classification. Wilco's done it, South San Gabriel's done it, Starlings, TN are certainly capable of doing it, too.
Make sure, though, to add Austin's Shearwater to that rather short list. While Shearwater might be known as a 'side project' for Okkervil River--frontman Jonathan Meiburg plays keyboards for them, while Will Sheff is Okkervil's frontman--Winged Life, their third album to date, proves that there's more to this band than mere side project status. The compositions are so strong and original that Okkervil River's a mere passing thought; if the band were to disband and simply spend their time on Shearwater, it wouldn't really be a great loss.
Sometimes Shearwater gets all traditional country, such as on the soft pickin' and grinnin' folk of "My Good Deed" and "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine," but those moments are few and far between. Occasionally they use the traditional country instrumentation to create something not at all country; some songs, such as "A Hush," "The World in 1984" and "Sealed" sound like Radiohead if they'd grown up within the 512 area code. A wonderful example of this is "Whipping Boy," which starts off with a pickin' banjo but by song's end the banjo's been supplemented with vibes and drums and some keyboards, and the song itself is something much more urban, more modern, more...pathetic in that hopeless modern rock kind of way. Meiburg sings with a gentle croon that, yes, does recall both Nick Drake and Thom Yorke, but he does so in a way that's devoid of everything Nick Drake and Thom Yorke. Perhaps it's the bleak despair in his voice? Yeah, I think so, too.
Ultimately, there's no difference between Shearwater's cold and distant instrumentation and the sad-eyed lonesome me songs of Hank Williams. They're both singing tears-in-my-beer songs; they're just expressing their heartbreak about in different ways. Winged Life is a beautiful and sad collection of weepers that's pefect for the College Intellectual Who Thinks Himself Too Smart for Country as well as the afficianado of more traditional alt.country types and those who just like really sad music. Winged Life is a winning record for losing.
Label Website: http://www.misrarecords.com
Artist Website: http://www.jound.com/shearwater