New CDs from Shearwater, Heartless Bastards and Amos Lee, three acts also playing SXSW
This week, new CDs from three bands who are official South by Southwest showcasing bands, two with Austin ties.
At the beginning of last year, Shearwater, at the time an Austin-based band consisting of core members Jonathan Meiburg, Thor Harris and Kimberly Burke, played a show at the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin. Though the venue was enough to make the event special on its own, the band upped the ante, playing its past three albums — "Palo Santo," "Rook" and "The Golden Archipelago," collectively referred to as "The Island Arc" — in their entirety, in order.
That's a lot of music, but the group has become such a live force that it was a hardly a chore to stay seated in church pews for three hours. Meiburg's voice, a force on its own, combined with his often strange and otherworldly lyrics and Harris' arsenal of homemade drums, dulcimers and percussion, made for a concert experience unlike anything else. The event was also bittersweet. Meiburg framed it as the close of a chapter for the band, and while it wasn't clear what was next, there was the sense that something was about to change.
"I had such a great time playing at that show," Meiburg says. "It was a really special experience, but at the end of the last song, I had this feeling that we've kind of reached the end of this approach, I really would like to try something different, I want to reimagine it. That really felt like the end of an era."
Over the past year, there have been some changes for the band. It switched labels, from Matador to Sub Pop. Harris and Burke, who play on "Animal Joy," have stepped away as well, though Meiburg says they remain members of the group. The biggest change, though, is in the music. Meiburg has shed any previous inclination toward the epic and abstract for something personal and direct.
"I wanted to make a record that wasn't quite as cerebral; something that had not just a head but also a body," Meiburg says. "I've always been suspicious of putting myself in my own songs as a character, but I decided I wasn't going to shy away from that on this record."
He didn't shy away. "Animal Joy" is a dramatic and compelling change of direction, filled with a side of the band's leader that has never really surfaced on his other releases. The songs themselves approach that transition, as well the ensuing struggles, head on. "You Were As You Were" is an awakening, closing with an energized confession: "I am leaving the life" on repeat. It's unclear whether the "Johnny" he's addressing on "Immaculate" is himself or not, but it's overtly confrontational: "Johnny get a hold of your life/wherever I go your face is in front of me."
One thing that hasn't necessarily changed for Meiburg is his connection to the animal world, which creates a strain of immediacy running throughout "Animal Joy":
"The great lesson if you have an animal that they teach you is that they are so present in every moment," he says. "They're really sad or really excited, but whatever it is that they are, they're 100 percent that, and they're right there. So often we tend to live off in the future somewhere, or the Internet, and animal joy I think of as that feeling of intense involvement with doing what you're doing right now. That can be frightening, that can be exhilarating, but you know it when you feel it, and in some ways I think that's when we're closest to the animal world."
— Peter Mongillo
In addition to SXSW, Shearwater plays March 4 at Antone's and March 11 at Waterloo Records.
The Heartless Bastards
Yes, there are people who are very good at playing rock 'n' roll music in Austin. Erika Wennerstrom and the rest of the Heartless Bastards are among them. The band's story has been fairly well-documented — Wennerstrom started out in Dayton, Ohio, where she fell in love with locals like Guided by Voices. A run-in with fellow Ohioan Patrick Carney of the Black Keys led to the Heartless Bastards' signing with Fat Possum.
A couple of years later, Wennerstrom relocated to Austin, where she worked with producer Mike McCarthy on 2009's "The Mountain," the band's third album. It was a breakout of sorts, helped in part by a high-profile storm of a SXSW showcase at Stubb's that lead to a mess of attention. Fueled by the ending of a long-term relationship, the album, and the title track in particular, was a post-apocalyptic jaunt with crusty guitar, pedal steel and Wennerstrom's Zepp-metal vocals going on about blood, smoke and desire. It was a different direction than a lot of other popular indie rock, which was getting a little, um, soft.
Where to go from there? For Wennerstrom, out on the open road. In the press release for "Arrow" she said the music represents a new beginning — "me being comfortable again" — with songs conceived on a series of road trips taken over the past year. Despite a different cast of backup players this time around — drummer Dave Colvin, bassist Jesse Ebagh and guitarist Mark Nathan — "Arrow" is still undeniably a Heartless Bastards album, with Wennerstrom's voice once again taking center stage.
The Jim Eno-produced sound isn't as gritty as it was at times on "Mountain," but all of the elements that draw the classic rock comparisons are still there, with hazy electric bass-driven grooves next to acoustic guitar and percussion jams.
At first, "Arrow" threatens to suffer from Wennerstrom's lack of heartbreak. On some of the songs, she's describing a world as it passes from inside a moving car, with all of the inward thoughts that come along with those kinds of trips, but she seems more at peace and in a reflective mood. On the record's centerpiece, "The Arrow Killed the Beast," that world is more connected with "The Mountain," especially as she wails on the chorus, "and the arrow killed the beast that is burning inside of me." The suffering is gone, but the memory of it remains.
'As the Crow Flies'
The four- to seven-song EP is a wonderful thing. It distills a given act's aesthetic without moments of filler. Done well, they can be works of art as powerful as any album and leave you wanting more.
This is not quite one of those; "As The Crow Flies" seems to be leftovers from the recording session for "Mission Bell," Lee's 2011 album, recorded in collaboration with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico.
The tunes are neither lost gems nor pointless scraps — they are cut from exactly the same cloth as "Mission Bell," soulful folk-pop, impeccably polite and civilized and inoffensive when playing.
To hear them is to enjoy them in a background sort of way and move on with your day. It doesn't help that the guest stars, such as Willie Nelson, so crucial to providing a larger context for Lee's work, are absent here and that Burns and Convertino, never the most manic of players, seem especially restrained here.
Lee can summon a gently depressive mood just fine ("The Darkness") or find pleasures in simple things (uh, "Simple Things"), but one longs for a little more there, there. So this is not an EP as compact definition of an artist, but as a placeholder until the next album.
Unless it is both, which does not bode well.
— Joe Gross