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The Haul 2010: Shearwater's Rook and Let's Active's Afoot

12. Shearwater – Rook LP – Matador, 2008 – $4.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Shearwater's Rook

I took a chance on this Shearwater record for a few reasons: first, it’s on Matador; second, it was cheap; third, they’ve toured with bands I enjoy (Wye Oak and The Acorn); and fourth, I figured my wife might like it. Had I waited a few months, I would’ve added Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s appearance on this exceptional Wye Oak cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” for the Onion AV Club. In spite of all of these promising justifications, I should’ve heard Shearwater first.

I’ll be blunt: Meiburg’s mannered delivery rubs me the wrong way. It’s suited to early 1970s prog-rock like King Crimson, in which case his precise falsetto and reedy bellow would feel right at home. A more contemporary name that comes to mind is Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, whose controlled phrasing and melodic flourishes occasionally present the same irritation, if not the same eventual dismissal. I’ll admit it: I like J. Robbins’ everyman voice and virtually every voice that resembles it. That’s my default.

It’s not that Rook is bad album. The occasional bursts of crashing guitar on “On the Death of the Waters” and “Century Eyes” recall a manicured version of Neil Young. “Rooks,” “Leviathan, Bound,” and “The Hunter’s Star” incorporate horns, chimes, strings, and piano with a deft hand. But my qualms with Meiburg’s vocal mannerisms extend to the music. There’s an underpinning of theatricality to these songs that occasionally erupts, like the invigorated delivery of “We'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed” on “Rooks.” The ornithology-inspired lyrics provide a unique perspective, but there’s no chance my brain will allow me to appreciate them.

If you enjoy mannered deliveries and lingering theatricality, Shearwater is worth checking out. If those phrases make you retract a bit from the monitor, heed my warning. Even though I love Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record and learned to love Talk Talk, some challenges are too great.

13. Let’s Active – Afoot LP – IRS, 1983 – $1.50 (Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, 1/24)

Let's Active's Afoot

Let’s Active are one of those “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never heard a note of their music” groups that I’ll check out if the price is right. (See also: Dumptruck.) And for $1.50, the price was right. I mostly know them as contemporaries of R.E.M. in the 1980s college rock / jangle-pop scene, since singer/guitarist Mitch Easter produced early R.E.M. albums like the Chronic Town EP, Murmur, and Reckoning and they shared the IRS imprint. (Mitch Easter later produced Pavement’s Brighten the Corners and Helium’s No Guitars EP and The Magic City.) He certainly produces good music, but does he write it?

That verdict hasn’t come in, but I certainly got the genre tags right. The first side of Afoot sticks firmly with jangly college rock, with the winning “Every Word Means No” demonstrating the best combination of clean guitars, crisp drumming, and chipper, melodic vocals. Let’s Active spreads out a bit on side B with less success. The female vocals and new wave textures of “Room with a View” cite Blondie. The enthusiastic “In Between” could almost be mistaken for a Go-Go’s song. “Leader of Men” has a twitchy new wave bass line and an out-of-character squealing guitar solo. I suspect these new wave elements gradually filtered out of their sound on future recordings, since the jangle-pop/college rock side was more in vogue in their crowd. Afoot will hit the spot if you’re fond of jangle-pop from the 1980s or 1990s, but I suspect you’d be better off grabbing “Every Word Means No” and the better material from their later releases.

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