Austin's Shearwater began as a collaboration between vocalist Will Sheff of Okkervil River and keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, but it has shaken its reputation as a mere side project, with Meiburg taking sole songwriting duties on the group's latest album. While his keyboard and piano melodies are reminiscent of his contributions to Okkervil River, they take center stage with Shearwater: "Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five" opens with a Tori Amos-esque pounding piano riff before Meiburg launches into his impassioned wail.
Elsewhere, Shearwater is more restrained: The delicate "Nobody" could be a lullaby, and Meiburg's quiet vibrato on "Sing, Little Birdie" hints of the quivering vocals of Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). But Meiburg doesn't always hold back: The dramatic "Johnny Viola" charges forward with a bouncy percussion line and a trumpet accent before fading into a peaceful melancholy, while the dreamlike "White Waves" builds into a passionate roar.
The Court & Spark is more consistently mellow, with vocalist M.C. Taylor's laid-back croon recalling the gravelly wisdom of Crooked Fingers' Eric Bachmann. Behind his voice, instruments are layered like a tightly woven tapestry: A pedal steel guitar, hammered dulcimer and piano carry melodies in "We Were All Uptown Rulers," while instrumental tracks such as the almost jazzy "Smoke Signals" give "Hearts" a welcome burst of energy.
-- Catherine P. Lewis