Cover albums can be a way for a band to pay homage to their influences, but Fellow Travelers, Shearwater’s ninth album, takes that sentiment one step further, with the group exploring and collaborating with some of the acts they’ve toured with during the last decade, from high rollers like Coldplay to critical darlings such as St. Vincent to obscure British folksingers like David Thomas Broughton. Lead singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg’s talent for orchestration allows him to capitalize on the broad range of styles in play, resulting in a respectfully experimental album rich with surprises.
Most unexpected, perhaps, is the success of Shearwater’s treatment of Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven.” The band strips away the original’s bluster and substitutes it with billowing, ambient instrumentation, even as Meiburg’s superb vocal performance sustains the song’s emotional pitch. His fairly idiosyncratic voice provides a common thread throughout the mélange of songs here, from a wispy, tantalizing fragment of Jesca Hoop’s “Our Only Sun” to a fully cranked rendition of Folk Implosion’s “Natural One.”
Fellow Travelers gives a sense of possibilities, an occasionally thrilling glimpse into various musical byways not taken. What would have happened if Shearwater had decided to pursue piano-driven Brit-pop tunes or country-rock? With most bands, the harp on Broughton’s “Ambiguity” would be the unusual instrument, but for Shearwater, it’s Meiburg’s use of a distorted Gibson played in blown-out post-punk glee on “I Luv the Valley OH!!!” As a one-off, it’s a chance for Shearwater to expand its sonic palate without estranging its fanbase. The album’s best moments also capitalize on the collaborative ethos of the project, as when Sharon Van Etten lends her inimitable vocals to the one Shearwater original, “A Wake for the Minotaur,” and Clinic, whose song “Tomorrow” appears earlier in the album, provides a glistening backing track for Meiburg’s cover of Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life.”
According to the album’s press notes, Fellow Travelers was initially conceived as an EP of home recordings, a gift for friends. Unfortunately, in LP form, it suffers from some pacing issues. The harp arpeggios and shivering, indistinct field recordings on “Ambiguity” are lovely, but the song feels suffocated between “Natural One” and Shearwater’s stomping take on St. Vincent’s quirky “Cheerleader.” “I Luv the Valley OH!!!,” the album’s energetic highpoint, comes much too soon, making the back half of the album feel spent, like a set that’s gone on too long. But the album still has an intimate feel to it, like a missive to those other bands trudging the tour circuit, and it’s an ambitious one that invites listeners to travel along.