For those slackers who missed 2006's dazzling fourth album by Shearwater, Matador are here to save your bacon with a pimped-up re-release consisting of 2 discs and new deluxe packaging featuring some stunning artwork. Palo Santo is the bands first album where Jonathan Meiburg assumes full vocal duties and the result is a grander, more rounded sound that sees them rise like a phoenix from the thick melancholy that engulfed their earlier work. This isn't to suggest that this isn't melancholy. The record is inspired by the life of Warhol muse Nico so it isn't going to be a bag of laughs but while they keep to the icy chill that has become their trademark Palo Santo serves up many moments of awesome grandeur only hinted at on previous records.
Formed in 2001 by Meiburg and Will Sheff, Shearwater was meant to be a vehicle for the quieter songs penned by the two musicians while working on their principle collaboration, Okkervile River. But after the addition of new multi-instrumentalists Shearwater soon grew way beyond initial intentions and Palo Santo is their crowning glory.
La Dame Et La Licorne opens the album and actually mirrors the career of this band quite nicely. It creeps into view with Meiburg's frail, quivering voice barely audible but gradually swells to thumping piano and howling declarations. And this sets us up for Red Sea, Black Sea, one of the albums many highlights. This takes no time to pound with all its heart on the galloping rhythm that dominates this song. It's these moments of real muscle that make this record pull away from the bands back catalogue and race forward with renewed energy and confidence. Seen again in White Waves' gritty electric guitar and Seventy Four, Seventy Five's pounding piano. Having said that, there's still plenty of room for the feather-light delicacy of the title track and the achingly beautiful Failed Queen where hollow landscapes are created with sparse acoustic guitar and the frail musings of Meiburg.
This element is explored in more depth on the second disc where we get demo versions of four of the original tracks. These are drastically stripped down renditions showing the extent to which this vocalist can vary his delivery. Having seen the heat of this voice on the first CD we now get the drifting whisper like a feint trail of smoke from a newly extinguished flame. There are also 4 new songs on this bonus disc including a cover of Skip James' Special Rider Blues.
This is an expansive album from a band who started from humble beginnings but are now evolving into a great rock outfit. Shearwater have always fitted into a tradition of songwriting that seems to capture the great American landscape in all its sparse, lonely beauty but with Palo Santo they have started to evoke the power and strength of this landscape and this refurbishment only serves to enhance that.