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In 2007 Shearwater made the jump from Misra to Matador, culminating in a generously stocked reissue of 2006's excellent Palo Santo. It was a fitting partnership, as the band was beginning to settle into a more eclectic, rock-oriented outfit, raising the bar for its forthcoming "official" Matador debut. At just over 36 minutes, Rook is tailor-made for the dwindling attention span of the information age, but if ever the dated phrase "all killer, no filler" were to apply, it would be here. Jonathan Meiburg's gorgeous, melodramatic lyrics would reek with pretension out of anyone else's mouth, but his increasingly fluid and powerful voice, which is now caught somewhere between Jello Biafra, Jeff Buckley, and Tilt-era Scott Walker, demands full attention from the listener, a notion that often gets swept under the rug in the current lo-fi, D.I.Y. indie rock climate. The production is the band's most concise to date, thanks in part to the removal of at least half the amount of reverb used on previous recordings, allowing more percussive instruments like dulcimer, vibraphone, glockenspiel, harp, and banjo the chance to dance around the fire rather than disappear into the murky darkness that surrounds it. As with all Shearwater records, wildlife (specifically avian) imagery rules the roost. Starlings feast on dead crows, hunters wait in the melting snow for prey and pigs, oxen and even snow leopards drop in to assume positions of great metaphor. Opening track "On the Death of the Waters" plays out like the prologue of a maritime fairy tale, as the narrator waxes sublime from the prow of a ship to the strains of a delicate piano before exploding into a rage of brass, distortion, and drama that sounds like an outtake from Pink Floyd's The Wall. This "calm before the storm" aesthetic dominates Rook, and in another testament to its short running time, works beautifully, illuminating the few straightforward pieces like "Century Eyes," "Leviathan, Bound," and the brooding title track like a centuries-old woodcut, and allowing the tension that permeates the entire affair to ebb and flow naturally, resulting in one of the most heady and satisfying albums of the year.

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