I have made it very clear how much I admire Will Sheff and how great a songwriter I think he is. Okkervil River blew me away with last year's opus, "Down the River of Golden Dreams." Until recently, I was not fully aware of how prolific Sheff is. The main difference between Shearwater and Okkervil River is the fact that Okkervil keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg technically fronts this band, but Sheff contributes a lot of the material as well. Frankly, I don't care. I'm just glad Sheff is inspired enough to write this many songs, and I'm glad that he and Meiburg have such a symbiotic relationship. Their songwriting styles complement each other like clown fish and sea anemones. And because their voices are fairly similar, at times it's difficult to tell who is at the helm.
If Meiburg is the captain of the Shearwater ship, Sheff is the first mate. But, like in 'Gilligan's Island,' it's the first mate who steals the show. He writes lyrics that could overshadow any of today's great songwriters, and he has an uncanny sense of melody. On "My Good Deed," he's just showing off. 1950s-tinged pop is mixed with '60s country into a subtly powerful understatement. It catches you off guard by starting off quiet and unassuming. It's like the old anecdote about boiling a frog. In order to kill the thing, you have to turn the heat up slowly. Sheff is a master of this. This song seems to float along and next thing you realize, you're on the edge of your seat and a chiming vibraphone is raining down upon you. It's executed perfectly.
Where "My Good Deed" tries to catch you off guard, "The Convert," wastes little time. With shades of "Down the River of Golden Dreams? cast all over it, Sheff sets the table on the bridge: "God take that sound away if you've got something to say, say it now / It's fake and I need you not to be fake. I don't care how you make me feel, just so you're real." His depiction of someone completely at the end of their rope is impressive. He feels so much empathy. A piano and organ give the song the gospel feeling it needs, and as "The Convert" drops to its knees, Sheff delivers the death blow: "Though what once was clear is now so blurred and smeared / Your love felt more pure once your voice disappeared." Revelations are often short-lived, and Sheff's words never fail to move me.
I don't want to act like Jonathan Meiburg's contribution (which is obviously major) to "Winged Life" is not impressive. It is. "Whipping Boy" reminds me of Iron & Wine with its hushed vocals and bright banjo plucking. Brushed drums and breathy 'ooh's and 'uhh's give this piece a tribal feel. After one listen to this song, there's little doubt that Meiburg is almost Sheff's equal. He's a damn fine songwriter.
And then there's "Sealed." This is the best song here. Opening on a Fender Rhodes (my love!), Meiburg's voice is painfully strung between notes. Don't be fooled, though, because this song is anything but a quiet, aching mess. Minimalist drum and cymbal splatters give a tiny hint, but nothing really prepares you for the explosion 2/3 of the way in. Even though it's only a 30 second, distorted romp, it leaves you shaken for the final seven minutes of the album. I literally jumped when the distortion hit - it's put together perfectly. Goddamn is this a great song!
On "Winged Life," Shearwater shows off Meiburg's and Sheff's quieter side. Where "Golden Dreams" was intense and at times raucous, "Winged Life" is more subtle in its reach and approach. It might not have the lasting impression of "Down the River of Golden Dreams," but that is not to say it isn't an excellent album. I have seen Shearwater and Okkervil River referred to as "brother bands." I just hope a sibling rivalry doesn't develop, because there are few songwriters that fit better together than Meiburg and Sheff. 8/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)