I’ll be the first one to admit it—year-end lists are deceptive. I love making them, and I’m glad we do them at Treble, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves (and our gracious readers) of all the great stuff that graced our years for the past 12 months. The funny thing, though, is that anyone’s personal list is subject to change over time, and I guarantee that, if it were made today, my own Best of 2006 list would be different than it was around Thanksgiving. Some artists might drop to 51 or 52 (like Clearlake), some might shoot higher (like Mastodon or Lupe Fiasco). However, there’s one album that I know would be a much more prominent candidate for acclaim, that being Palo Santo, Shearwater’s unsung epic masterpiece. Yes, I called it a masterpiece.
Having just signed to Matador, Shearwater, themselves, are allowing everyone else a second chance at hearing their stunning creation, albeit in an expanded and revamped format. With Matador’s reissue of Palo Santo, not only is there an extra disc of bonus demo material, but the band also re-recorded five tracks due to dissatisfaction with the original results. One might perceive this as nit-picky self-criticism, but the new versions heard here are, sure enough, more potent and more sonically huge than on the album’s first issue.
The opening track, “La Dame et La Licorne,” is the first of the revised versions, its Talk Talk-like sprawl still firmly in place, with Jonathan Meiburg’s vocals sounding ever more like Jeff Buckley. The line “so young and handsome in the light” brings to mind a similar line from Buckley’s own “Nightmares by the Sea,” a parallel certain to send chills down one’s spine. Even more noticeable is the new take on “Red Sea, Black Sea,” which opens up and pushes banjo to the front where muted, effects-treated guitar once sat front and center, as is Meiburg’s gloriously vicious “what a fucking disaster!” I would have said the song was perfect in its first incarnation, but somehow, Shearwater has improved upon it still.
“Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five” still pounds and throbs with nervous energy, but a climactic burst of horns adorns the bridge, filling even more space with dynamic sound. Similarly, “Johnny Viola” goes even further toward hi-fi studio magic, reverb and delay effects giving Meiburg that much more of a commanding presence as the song just rocks even harder, adding a bit of trumpet here as well. The last of the new recordings is “Hail, Mary,” the longest track, stretching beyond six minutes and providing something of a climax to the record before the closing “Going is Song.” Suffice to say, Meiburg pushes the intensity throttle toward the wall here, even as the song’s pace trudges along somewhat slowly.
In its new format, Palo Santo presents a pretty enticing and worthwhile package. The extra demos and new recordings are certainly the most apt reasons for existing fans to pick up Palo Santo. Yet, as I listen to the haunting beauty of “Nobody,” the fuzzy swagger of “White Waves,” and the minimalist chill of the title track, I’m reminded of why I keep coming back to this timeless, amazing record.