Shearwater albums normally arrive bearing heavy conceptual freight. Their self-described trilogy, which spanned from 2006′s Palo Santo to 2010′s The Golden Archipelago, explored the physical and metaphysical aspects of the natural world. Their ability to tackle abstract subject matter serves the band well on a project like Fellow Travelers, a record that would appear, on the surface, to lack thematic depth: It is a collection of cover songs by former tour mates.
But instead of a grab bag of covers that parrot or flip the originals, Shearwater treat the songs as an opportunity to explore a deeper theme. Many of their selections explore the notion of the road, in all its tiresome glory: On “Hurts Like Heaven,” it’s a grind that zaps exuberance, while on “Natural One” it’s a source of swagger and success. Despite the wide range of bands represented — Coldplay, Xiu Xiu, Clinic, the Baptist Generals, to name a few — the results still resemble a Shearwater album, no small feat.
Most striking is the lack of gimmicks. Meiburg and Co. don’t get indulgently sci-fi covering St. Vincent’s mechanical “Cheerleader.” They don’t turn Jamie Stewart’s desperation on “I Luv the Valley OH!” into a sob-fest. They don’t even bother trying to out-epic Wye Oak’s assassination of God, “Mary is Mary.” Instead, the band makes thoughtful shifts in tone, removes lyrics, layers in subtle fills & field recordings. “Cheerleader” becomes a ragged rocker about fatigue, “I Luv the Valley Oh!” a paean to determination, “Mary is Mary,” an unflinching requiem to belief.
The one original, “A Wake for the Minotaur,” is a duet with Sharon Van Etten, who’s toured with — and tour-managed — the band. The song is light, gorgeous, haunting, and tips the scale from just an excavation of tours past. “Climb down the white road/ into the dark mud,” Meiburg sings — as good a parallel of the hope and reality of the road as you’ll find on the record. The song elevates this record from just a batch of covers to meditation on connection.