“Well, when the mega career-spanning box set comes out…”
– instant message to JM from IT regarding a lost Fellow Travelers song, September 11, 2013
This is not that, but it’s a lot closer than I expected we’d get.
From the vantage point of somebody who spends a lot of time in this industry but doesn’t work here, the war between “canon rockist” and “poptimist” seems about over. Most of the newer artists I follow do their experimentation in public, on SoundCloud or mixtapes or lathe-cut small-scale records or flexidiscs or just live. Even those upper-tier indie artists fortunate enough to be putting out “special editions” of their albums six months after the original release with the b-sides and live versions and outtakes* are, let’s face it, never going to see the sort of effort going into a collection of their work that, on the good side, Louis Armstrong got in the (epochal and epic) “Satchmo” suitcase, or, on the bad side, that some of Floyd’s lesser albums got in the somewhat Orwellian “Experience Editions”.
This is probably a good thing. The amount of money that flooded the stalls of a fairly small stable of rock bands over the four decades prior to the one in which we’re immersed was unhealthy for many of them personally and for the music industry as a whole. I’m okay with a world where the album isn’t the only valid currency and a career is a flurry of experimentation rather than an easily narrated arc from album to album.
But then one is confronted with a string of albums like these.
I’m putting my music lover hat on entirely here – I didn’t start working with Shearwater until right before Animal Joy came out, so I experienced these albums strictly as a fan. Which is to say: I experienced the thrill of finding a real treasure at the end of a long night’s trawling the labyrinth of mp3 blogs of 2007: of downloading “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five” expecting a Connells cover and getting something from another world. Of hunting down more by this group, finding “White Waves” and “Red Sea, Black Sea”. Of half-remembering a Pitchfork review of this weird re-take of an album where half the tracks were rerecorded. Of deciding to head down to the record store and give it a try.
I fell in love with Palo Santo completely. Not at the first listen. Probably by the fifth. I couldn’t understand a word of the title track, or much of “Sing Little Birdie” beyond the obvious Pink Floyd musical reference. This collection of images of frozen shorelines and devastated landscapes and shipwrecks and the pearls that were his eyes were not what I expected out of my rock music. But I wanted to move there.
Then Rook came out. I picked up the CD, naturally, release week, and found myself a little dismayed. It was so SHORT, in comparison to the sprawling Palo Santo reissue. My favorite track, Century Eyes, was two minutes of glorious horrified schadenfreude, and then it was gone. My favorite track, Lost Boys, was two and a half minutes of slicing up the belly of the sky, and then it was gone. At least my favorite track, Home Life, was pretty substantial. But two minutes of precious playtime was spent on feedback and eerie noises! (Although some days maybe South Col is my favorite track.) I think my third tweet ever was along the lines of, “I don’t know about this Rook thing, y’all…”
But then the northern winter really set in, and, like the water, the world of the album crystallized. (For all their Austin roots, Shearwater sure mastered evoking bone-chilling desolation on these records.) I think by the time springtime hit I had clocked at least fifty listens. And I needed more.
Sometime around then, I stumbled on the late, great Shearwater message board, where fans far more tenured and diehard than I swapped concert recollections, rare recordings, and really fascinating nature and science stories. (As one-directional as it is in comparison, we try to keep this part of the culture alive on our Facebook posts etc. In case you wonder why our posts in the periods of dead air between release cycles tend to resemble Scientific American and National Geographic more than Spin… sorry, my grey is showing.) Through the efforts of posters with handles like daylight, sea, and Storm and Static, I heard what they really sounded like live. I heard early stuff that was hardly recognizable as the same recording artists. I heard gems like “Fierce Little Lark” and “Helix”. I’ve been trying to return the favor to the universe ever since.
The Snow Leopard digital EP came out, and I eagerly downloaded it, but the major new item there was “North Col”. While I love it and some of the traditional songs and live versions here, it just wasn’t enough.
Finally! A new track. “Black Eyes” was a lot rockier than I was used to, and a lot more astringent to the ear. I didn’t understand what that guy was talking about at all, but he was awfully angry about it. “Castaways” came and again I didn’t understand. I was starting to lose hope. And the name of the album didn’t mean anything to me. The Golden Archipelago – was it a play on the golden arches of American fast food dominion? What was he trying to say? (Somewhere in here, I totally missed our only foray into crowdfunding so far, The Golden Dossier. I kicked myself for months until I picked one of the last five up at a show in Cleveland.)
Various songs caught my ear and kept me listening: Landscape at Speed, Hidden Lakes, that Final Cut riff of God Made Me, and the one-two punch of An Insular Life and Uniforms. I came to understand TGA along the shores of America’s freshwater seas, revisiting my own recollections of “life on the waving blue light” as a respite from my far too urban daily life. And as lyrics began to sink in and I began to pore through the “Golden Dossier lite” booklet that came with the CD, I began to realize that this was, maybe not “protest music”, but a really lively and aware embodiment of some of the 20th century’s greatest forgotten disasters, disasters that were still with us and still piling up. In the end, I came to feel the album even more urgently than I had its siblings.
So I guess what I’m saying is that you really can’t ask me to pick a favorite.
Up till this point, I had never seen them in concert – they just kept missing Detroit. So I gave up on waiting and headed to the closest show on the tour, spending the best Holy Saturday of my life in Cleveland. Songs from The Velvet Underground and Nico filled the pre-show air; it was the first time I’d ever heard somebody else play “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” Wye Oak, who I knew but not well, opened, and blew my mind. And then it was time for the main set, and, wow.
I didn’t know how to visualize Shearwater before this show, but it certainly wasn’t what I saw on stage. The collection of people onstage moved effortlessly from instrument to instrument, summoning worlds to their fingers. Jordan and Kevin, hip and capable with a range of instruments from melodica to guitar, from banjo to trumpet. Kim, elegant on the xylophone and powerful on the bass. Thor, both the most down to earth and the most worthy person I’d ever seen for the name, playing with subtlety and power and making incredible and eerie noises with his custom instruments. And JM, moving from guitar to keys and back, seeming like the most interesting and funny college professor you wish you’d had in each bit of stage banter, then pinning you against the wall with the look in his eyes and the arc in his voice.
Ironically, they finally came to Detroit that fall, and I picked up the sometimes raucous, sometimes soothing, always charmingly off-kilter Shearwater Is Enron disc, with hand-drawn art by Thor. (I gather that I’m one of the more passionate fans of it, but try this: listen to it the next time you’re on a plane flying into the dawn or the evening.) I got to chat as an anonymous audient with JM before the show. (He asked me, “Are you an ornithologist?” which is probably the most awesome thing a stranger has asked me besides, “Do you work for NASA?”) On the Shearwater front, though, things didn’t sound good at all. He wasn’t saying anything, but connotation and subtext led me to feel that the band’s life was essentially in danger.
When, the next month, the SW website featured an announcement of a concert back home in Austin to mark the end of the era, I suspected the worst. So what could I do but head down to Texas?
The performers’ recollections may differ, but from where I sat in the back half of the Central Presbyterian Church on that rainy January 15th, it was a spectacular realization of the works. This was not the sort of ambition or scope I was used to in the indie world. The excerpts presented here are definitely highlights, but what I noticed more than any rough spot was how good it felt to be with so many other people in a packed hall, hearing these albums that had come to mean so much to me.
I’d gone from a handful of mp3s five years prior to greedily hoarding every little shiny radio performance – Shearwater had taken over my musical life. They had become my favorite contemporary band, and if pushed, at least in my top five of all time. The idea of them stopping what they did was just impossible to deal with. For months after “The Island Arc Live”, with my conversation with JM in Detroit still ringing in my ears, I was contemplating how to help them stick around. (So when I got the opportunity to help out with the website etc., you bet I took it.)
Fast forward to late 2013. We’d received a couple packages of “fossilized eggs”, as one zip file said, from early Shearwaterer Howard “howrad” Draper and from Richard Selesnick (as in “Kahn and”). Dozens of Rook and The Golden Archipelago demo recordings, plus a handful of Palo Santo demos, from 2005 to 2009. We’d thought them lost forever after JM’s laptop was stolen in DC in 2010. I started narrowing down the pile to the most interesting. After a lot of shuffling and discussion we came up with a CD-sized set that shed light on how the albums came together, the way the Palo Santo: Extended Edition bonus disc (along with the original version) had for that album. And Missing Islands was born.
But there was a lot I liked we had to leave off. I could never make the sell on TGA outtake “Watch and Chain”. The Palo Santo demos were too similar to the finished product to justify their runtime on the tight confines of a single CD, plus PS had already gotten its due with the Extended Edition. (Though between my love of “Johnny Viola” and the fact the demo was entitled the unusually self-referential “The World in 1974”, leaving that one off killed me.) At that time, we hadn’t yet found original versions of gorgeous Rook-era songs “Fierce Little Lark” or “Helix”. And forgotten 2005 rarity “Remember the Tiger”, which foreshadowed the Island Arc as few other early songs under this moniker had, didn’t really fit so well on the disc.
Hence: this collection, hopefully full of songs or at least recordings you haven’t heard, of visual work you maybe haven’t seen (or you would like to print out and decorate with?). If you’re a newer fan, possibly more than you can deal with in one sitting!
It has been my honor to collect, sequence, and physically manufacture this set. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with our friend the great designer Mark Ohe and Patrick, Claire, and Adam at Matador Records to make this real. Special thanks to Max Lorenzen for endless tape-sample cutting, to Jamie Dobie for emergency rubber stamp delivery, and to McKinley M Hellenes for late-night copy editing assistance. Eternal appreciation to Jordan Urlacher for years of being our volunteer archivist and my first real-life Shearwater fan friend outside my own household.
May this assembly of various pieces keep your ears and heart and mind busy for a long, long time, and may these records live forever.
Jonathan Kade (aka the IT guy)
February 3, 2016
* you know what, maybe that one’s our fault. sorry about that.
Palo Santo: Bonuses
The Snow Leopard EP
The Golden Archipelago
The Golden Archipelago b-sides
Palo Santo demos
Palo Santo (Original Version)
Shearwater Is Enron
The Island Arc Live (Excerpts)