Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Shearwater, Wye Oak @ Lee's Palace, Toronto (April 1, 2010)

Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater: photo by Michael Ligon
  Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater: photo by Michael Ligon

Strangely, for a bill as strong as the one last Thursday at Lee's Palace featuring Austin's Shearwater, Baltimore guitar/drums duo Wye Oak, and Lawrence, Kansas experimental pop outfit Hospital Ships, it didn't sell out although by the time headliners Shearwater hit the stage there was a healthy crowd onhand.

Although what I'd heard of Hospital Ships through their MySpace was intriguing, to me reminiscent of the experimental pop style of bands like The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, I was running late and missed their set entirely. Chromewaves fortunately was there and has a review of the entire show including Hospital Ships' set. Strangely, when I'd arrived I thought perhaps the band that was onstage setting up was Hospital Ships but it turned out to be Wye Oak. So basically, I was later than I imagined.

The band had made their Toronto debut a few years back at Sneaky Dee's during the Over The Top Fest in May 2008 (which was soonafter the release of their debut album "If Children") but couldn't make it for reasons I can't recall. Already on to their second album entitled "Knot" released in 2009 I've been grossly ignorant of the band. Knowing that they were a young duo playing guitar and drums, the first descriptive word that I guessed might apply was 'spunky' which can be good but on the other hand there seems to be sufficient number of spunky indie-rock duos at the moment. The duo of Jenn Wasner (vocals, guitars) and Andy Stack (drums, keyboards, backup vocals) fortunately had more versatility than I'd hoped, generally taking Yo La Tengo's approach to writing keen melodies and breathing life into full-sounding musical arrangements notwithstanding their limited membership. But rather than Yo La Tengo's penchant for 3-minute lo-fi pop nuggets, Wye Oak tended toward darker pop territory, with songs that seemed more drawn out instrumentally at times. Jenn's vocals were femine but not brittle thankfully, alternating her guitar sound from quiet to loud augmented through the use of guitar pedals. Drummer Stack kept a solid backbeat but at times showed he was adept at more complicated rhythms. At the end the duo brought out Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg on a cover of an Americana-tinged number that unforunately I didn't get the name of but it was terrific.

Perhaps, the dimming of the stage lights for Shearwater's set was a good thing (a bad thing for photographers though) as it definitely helped to add to the mood created by the band's sweeping, dramatic folk-rock songs. It was definitely a far cry from the the first time I'd seen Shearwater during the band's late afternoon set at one of the medium-sized stages at last year's Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain. I'd only got on board with the band with the 2007 deluxe reissue of their 2006 album "Palo Santo", and through to their 2008 release "Rook", while I can say they can be enticing, it's mood music that I just don't find myself reaching for as often. So I had give "Palo Santo" a spin prior to the show just to remind me how good they could be.

Fans of Okkervil River and Shearwater will know that Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff collaborated together in Okkervil River then formed Shearwater together to write quieter songs and now Sheff has devoted himself to Okkervil River while Meiburg has done so with Shearwater. With such cross-pollination, there's some obvious musical similarities with both bands at one point or another treading dark lyrical territory, and expressing it through folk, country and or rock influences. But whereas Okkervil River feels more loose and ragged reflected in as much in Sheff's buoyant vocals, Shearwater seemed a bit more methodical in their approach - stark keyboards and strings, glockenspiel, clarinet, well-placed guitar and drum arrangements, and Meiburg's rich, dramatic vocals. In some ways and especially during the band's quieter, starker moments, with the solemness of Good Friday which was the day after the show, Shearwater seemed like a near-perfect soundtrack.

Photos: Shearwater, Wye Oak @ Lee's Palace, Toronto (April 1, 2010)
MySpace: Wye Oak
MySpace: Shearwater

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