Album review: Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

13 Jan

My desire to review the albums I listen to has grown rather exponentially since yesterday.  Could this be because I’m an attention whore and the Contra review garnered the most views on the blog evar.  Nah, I just really enjoy writing.  Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it, especially reviews, but I’m going to try to do this album justice, because, as of yet, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve heard this year (because we are so far into it and I’ve heard so much). 

Ok, this is a strange album cover, but still, great album.

I began to really get into listening to as many new albums as possible in late 2008.  I realize that’s a silly “hobby” to have, but, hey, if I’m listening to good, new music what’s the harm?  Well, there’s quite a bit of harm, actually, and I’m still trying my best to get over that hump, for, you see, my problem is that I get a bit obsessed with listening to the new albums that, once a year has ended, I seem to forget all about what transpired in it musically.  I bring this up because one of my favorite albums of 2008 was Shearwater’s Rook.  Ashamed to admit it, though I am, I have not heard Rook since the close of 2008.  All I really even remember about it at this point was that I loved it, and I vow to re-listen to it again as soon as possible.  That’s because The Golden Archipelago is just that good.

Hey, Ashley, stop telling us how good it is and start telling us a little about it, why don’t you?  Ok, ok, adoring public, let’s get onto the real review:

While I listened, I jotted down a few notes about each song, and then some final thoughts.  I’m not one to throw around the term soundscapes, but here, I can, and I will.  That’s what this album succeeds at exceedingly well.  There are vocals, but they’re just not center stage at all.  Tracks like “Hidden Lakes” and “An Insular Life” especially depend very heavily on the melodic instrumentation that Shearwater so successfully delivers.

“Hidden Lakes” is, in itself, a particularly great track on the album, and one I seemed to have the most to comment about, at least to myself.  The exact way I wrote it down in my notes: “The vocals take second place to the music on this one (well, they have on most tracks up to this point, but on this one especially), I wish I could place what the piano on this track reminds me of, but I’m wanting to say Bat For Lashes.  Add in some chimes straight out of  Dan Deacon’s Bromst and you have a real winner of a track on your hands.”

I mention piano, and, as I would find out later in the album, it was pivotal in creating yet another fantastic song in “Uniforms”.  I mentioned instrumentation before, and, as I said, the use of piano on this album was phenomenal.  Maybe it’s the classical music nerd in me, but if the use of piano scares you, then I think it’s done something special, and with “Uniforms” and the beginning of “Hidden Lakes” the heart-wrenching, blood-chilling piano is used to great effect.  Couple that with a Mumford & Sonsesque musical climax and cool down, plus more Dan Deaconesque chimes, and you have the makings of a best track, though I’m not ready to pick one of those just yet.

I don’t feel like I’m an expert of the field enough to throw around musical comparisons, but, since I’ve already begun, I’ll add a few more.  Throughout the album there is a hint of influence from none other than my dearly beloved Big Country, minus the e-bow unfortunately.  This is most clear in the second track, “Black Eyes”, but trickles in to a few other tracks over the course of the album.  I would also be remiss if I were to ignore how much the lead singer sounds like Antony of & The Johnsons fame.  On no track is this similarity more present, however, than on the closing number “Missing Islands”, the most A&TheJs influenced track of all, both vocally and melodically.

Now, let me take a bit of a breather from the love-fest and be brutally honest about the main failing of this album.  Only on two tracks do I ever feel like there’s any peak, any musical epic.  No, this isn’t necessary in general, but here, it feels like they are striving to reach these heights and all too often fall short.  From the beginning of the album, with the opening “Meridan”, it feels like the song builds and builds and builds to a point where there just must be something great, but instead the song ends leaving the listener confused and hoping for more (ok, this listener).  In short: The problem with a lot of these songs is that they don’t end very gracefully.  It feels like they’re going somewhere great, and then they just stop.

To sum it all up, I feel very strongly that repeated listens should only heighten the experience that is this album, and I look forward to it.

Rating: 9.2/10

Travis once again weighs in: A lovely album that could use a bit more dynamics, although the few times it does perk up are shockingly good. Get a new vocalist.

Rating: 7.6/10

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