Winged Life

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A shearwater is a sea bird. Jonathan Meiburg, when he's not busy being the world's leading expert on the South American striated caracara (Phalcoboenus australis), or playing keyboards for Okkervil River, is the winsome frontman man for Shearwater, the band. After releasing two beautiful, fragile, often indulgently miserable records, this talented Southwest collective has found a new muse for its third long-player, Winged Life. While the often uncomfortable silences and quivering lower lips ("Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old...") still make the occasional appearance, Meiburg, Okkervil River lead singer Will Sheff, drummer and vibraphonist Thor Harris, and upright bassist Kim Burke have crafted an indie pop gem that replaces the genre's horn-rimmed irony with actual soul. Like Belle & Sebastian with serious intentions, they navigate emotional territory like big-game hunters, especially on "Sealed," where the weapon of choice is Meiburg's Pete Townsend-like falsetto. It's his gentle voice that is the record's greatest strength -- when it's on, it's breathtaking -- and it's biggest weakness -- when it's not, like on the flat "My Good Dee," the listener is inclined to give up along with him. The up-tempo tracks are the real standouts, and display a band that's well on its way to becoming a true force of nature. The deliciously wicked "Whipping Boy," with its treated drums mirroring its protagonist, finds a deep pocket groove, basking in its own chilliness, much like Radiohead's "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box," before giving up in a wash of strings. "I've Got a Right to Cry," despite its sad-sack title, is a sweet slice of pop pie that deserves placement in a Wes Anderson film. It's this optimistic response to growth that sets Shearwater leagues above their contemporaries. This is a group caught in the beautiful throes of rebirth, and beneath the quiet strums of the guitar, the gentle ripple of the Rhodes, and the soft exterior of Meiburg's vocals lies a heathen beast just waiting to be named.

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