A catalogue of influences might pique our interest in a band, but when it comes to those we take to heart, one of the most important clues is how much they themselves, come across as fans; frantically pressing music into your hand, or solemnly handing over headphones and saying 'this is going to change your life.' This doesn’t mean making 'record-collector rock', and it isn’t the same as obscurism, or crate-digging – a quantitative approach to proving your worth – but the simple desire to share your enthusiasm for whoever opened your eyes (or, as it were, ears) to sonic possibilities, with no fear of being deemed unoriginal or sneered at for behaviour unbecoming a rock-star. In this light, some of the most (apparently) curmudgeonly or morose bands turn out to be big geeks, and that’s what keeps them discovering, while others who come out of the gate with an us-against-the-world gang mentality soon run out of the ideas.
It’s just a theory, but one that comes to mind as Shearwater release a stop gap album covering songs by their (literal) fellow travellers, i.e. their tourmates over the past decade. Long term fans might hope that the next one will propel them to the same level as other purveyors of cerebral guitar-led music (Arcade Fire, The National) but know that they’re probably going to remain 'our' band for a bit longer, before quietly becoming a legacy act akin to Low or Antony.
The fellow travellers are a mix of the high-profile (Coldplay, St Vincent) and the low (Baptist Generals, David Thomas Broughton) with indie classics from Xiu Xiu ('I Luv the Valley, Oh!') and Folk Implosion ('Natural One') the most familiar tracks here. That said, it’s the Coldplay ('Hurts Like Heaven') and Broughton ('Ambiguity') tracks that benefit most from what we might think of as 'the Shearwater treatment': adding a layer of delicate, ambient instrumentation that makes the relatively two-dimensional lyrics come to life, as Meiberg teases nuances out of them. On the other hand, faithfully reproducing Jamie Stewart’s queer post-punk anthem and Lou Barlow’s sleazy trip-hop makes these versions more or less redundant. If you don’t have either, these versions should make you want to check them out… but there’s no need to come back. Clustered in the middle of the album are covers of Clinic and St Vincent that are simply too blunt and nondescript to afford opportunities for a subtle new reading, nor to rock out. The opening fragment of a Jesca Hoop song makes her sound more intriguing, but the one Meiberg original ('A Wake for a Minotaur'), with Sharon Van Etten guesting, is unmemorable.
Had this been a conventional covers album it might have included Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel (previously covered) as well as a choice from Pink Floyd’s Final Cut, maybe, and Nina Simone (shortly to be covered by Jamie from Xiu Xiu). As it happens, most of the artists covered are simply less interesting songwriters than the Shearwater of 2013, making the end result closer to their early albums (The Dissolving Room or Everybody Makes Mistakes), when Shearwater were still forging an identity among the alt country and folk bands at the turn of the millennium.
Fellow Travellers is a missed opportunity for a great covers album, but as a shout-out to friends, it epitomises everything that’s endearing and admirable about Shearwater.
6Alexander Tudor's Score