Originally intended as a low key EP release before the band’s follow up to 2012’s ‘Animal Joy’, this latest project from Shearwater, now fully formed into a ten track long player, is a well thought out effort from the Texans. Calling ‘Fellow Travelers’ a covers album does it a slight disservice, as it is very much a retrospective of musicians Shearwater have toured with over the course of their 14 year career. The twist being those same collaborators sidestep their own work in favour of someone else’s material, producing a surprisingly entertaining package.
Unsurprisingly, the album ebbs and flows somewhat unevenly, covering an eclectic range of styles, moods and tempo, held together by the gruff vocals of Jonathan Meiburg, whose voice can conjure up the sublime highs of Xiu Xiu’s ‘I Luv the Valley OH!’ through to the melancholy depths of Wye Oak’s ‘Mary Mary’ in a relatively brief 33 minutes. Choosing to retain much of the venom and bite of the aforementioned Xiu Xiu original is a wise move, as is the reworking of the most obvious offering, Coldplay’s ‘Hurts Like Heaven’. Here, the song is given a clarity not found in the original, free of its synth-heavy backing and played straight down the line, it version has a wonderful lightness as a piano led track with layers of ambient noise that build steadily towards the finale.
Whilst the band retain some sense of the theatrical - ‘Natural One’ is of particular note and the Baptist Generals’ ‘Fucked Up Life’ is now graced with drum machines, radio signals and organs courtesy of Clinic - there isn’t quite the same level of sonic exuberance found in previous Shearwater albums like ‘The Golden Archipelago’ or ‘Rook’. Instead the band, dictated in part by the songs they are covering, favour intimacy and sobriety over grand displays of stadium sized rock. The most successful songs on the album are equally the most paired down. ‘Ambiguity’ and the National-esque sounding ‘Mary Mary’ are highlights, as is ‘A Wake for the Minotaur’, featuring Sharon Van Etten, whose bare-all style of performance is perfectly suited to the sullen nature of the song.
Although this album is unlikely to change any existing opinion about a band whose left of centre sensibilities have always meant successfully evading wider acceptance, there is enough richness in the material here to merit far more than classing Fellow Travelers as a mere novelty.