Shearwater

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Hailed as "almost impossibly majestic and beautiful" (NPR "album of the year"), Shearwater's Palo Santo (2007, Matador), a suite of ethereal but oddly disquieting art-rock songs loosely centered around the life and death of singer Christa Paffgen (aka Nico), marked the Texan quartet's debut on the national stage. Several publications, including The New York Times, named it one of the year's best, and the band's singular combination of sonic abandon and restraint, spun around the soaring, otherworldly voice of part-time ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg, drew comparisons to late-period Talk Talk and both the lovely and anxious moments of Eno's early solo work.

This year's much-anticipated Rook takes the band into realms both richer and stranger. Though a similarly haunted, elegaic mood - punctuated by flashes of dread and menace - pervades the album, Rook is its own animal, at once more accessible (the near-title track, "Rooks", anchored by Thor Harris' thunderous kick drum, a booming organ, and a stately trumpet line, could almost be mistaken for radio-friendly) and more accomplished than its predecessor, with a depth and grandeur that seem improbably packed into the album's tidy 35 minutes. Squalls of feedback have largely given way to sudden gusts of strings and woodwinds, though the band's fondness for unusual instrumentation remains intact - harp, hammer dulcimer, and a curiously carved metal box all take featured roles.

Each song on Rook is a mini-epic, from the in-medias-res opening of "On the Death of the Waters" to the pounding (but drumless) urgency of "Leviathan, Bound", the abrupt rock of "Century Eyes", the crystalline depths and heights of "I Was a Cloud" and "The Snow Leopard", and the final, elegant flourish of "The Hunter's Star". Rook is unlike any other album you'll hear this year – or any year. It has the vividness and ineffability of a waking dream, the strange beauty and internal logic of a fairy tale, and above all, evokes a vanishing world that may or may not be our own.

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