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Indie rock's Shearwater dissects our relationship with the natural world



Shearwater with Damien Jurado 9 p.m. Saturday Opolis 113 N. Crawford, Norman $12-$14

Shearwater offers an intriguing mix of oddity and familiarity. Elements of folk, baroque pop and post-rock coalesce through music that doesn't correspond very tightly with any of those styles. Call it "naturalistic chamber drama" because of its rich, orchestral mien; dynamic and swelling instrumental narratives; and strong thematic ties to the natural environment.

After all, the Texas trio " appearing Saturday at Opolis in Norman " is named after a long-winged seabird.

Shearwater's released six albums since forming in 2001, although the outfit took a mid-catalog break between 2004's "Winged Life," which boasts a strange rock immediacy, and 2006's "Palo Santo," which began a journey into a sort of rarified elegance, culminating in its breathtaking latest, "The Golden Archipelago."

"If I'd been smart, I would've changed the name back then," said co-founder Jonathan Meiburg. "It takes a while to pick up your stride, and of course, I still feel like I'll do better in the future, but 'Palo Santo' feels like the first real Shearwater album. It's like something woke up on that record."

It also marked the first of a trio of thematically linked albums, although they were never conceived that way.

"When we got to the end of this one, I felt like we were standing on a headland looking out at the sea. There was nowhere else to go for me up this particular road," Meiburg said. "There's a similar shape to these albums and they have some similar preoccupations. I tried to make them all look somewhat alike, too. This last one is looking at these little fragments of the world that once was, and the world with which we replaced it."

Most of his music is informed by an experience he had just out of college. He received a fellowship to study the daily life in remote human communities from the Falkland Islands to an aboriginal settlement in Australia. The experience profoundly changed his understanding of our culture and what it means to be "human."

"It was such a strong reminder that there's more than one way to see the world and to live in it than what you're presented with," he said. "The world you and I walk around in is the one we make up in our head. But that's not really the one that's there."

He recalls an old Bob Hope joke about Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. conducted nuclear tests ("We took the one place that hasn't been touched by the world and we blew the hell out of it"), noting the powerful hold islands have on our collective imaginations. That idea drives Shearwater's current record.

"We have islands from Homer to 'Lost.' They're always with us, this idea of these little worlds where we can make the rules or where a different set of rules apply than the ones we normally know," he said. "Islands have always appealed to people as a kind of blank slate, a place where you could remake the world, and we have in a way. We've turned most of the earth into, like, fantasy islands."

This elegiac mix of awe, mystery and agency shapes "The Golden Archipelago," Shearwater's most sumptuous, grandiose album without ever seeming vain.

"I think with our music, there's a certain kind of " I'm going to say impersonal quality; it's not exactly, but that's not far off of it " which sometimes drives me crazy and sometimes intrigues me, because I don't know where it comes from," Meiburg said. "The live shows are a nice antidote to that, because you're right there. But on the record, sometimes it gets a little eerie to me, because it seems like there's something inhuman about them. I'm trying to evoke or conjure up a feeling of the pre-human world, and I guess it's not going to be very human feeling."

Shearwater almost at times feels like a band out of time, which is a particularly apt description of Meiburg's cultural perspective.

"You and I live in a time where it's more and more possible to interact almost entirely with this imaginary world. Or a world that springs very much out of human imagination and not the millions and millions and millions of years that came before," he said. "It's like a panopticon, but on the other hand, it's a weird kind of myopia, too. In a way, the more you can see, the less can be seen."

Photo/Mary Sledd

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