For a band that doesn’t really do singles, Shearwater unleashed two truly outstanding ones in 2008, “Rooks” and “The Snow Leopard,” both of which landed on Treble’s year-end songs list. While the former is a stunning, but steady mid-tempo rock song, the latter is something of a cryptic and muscular ballad, building upon its eerie piano melody into one of the band’s biggest and most jaw-dropping pieces. Yet the two were distributed in two very different fashions—while “Rooks” was given the straightforward seven-inch issue, “The Snow Leopard” brings seven friends along for the ride on a digital only EP, which includes a “Rooks” b-side for those who may not have gotten around to picking up a turntable yet.
The Snow Leopard is split evenly between live recordings and studio tracks, with three covers split among those. The amazing title track sets the EP in motion, albeit slow and graceful motion, with its melancholy chords and sinister build-up, not to mention its powerful drums. The brief, rustic, banjo-driven American gothic “North Col,” a bonus track on Rook‘s vinyl release, is another Shearwater essential, gorgeous and haunting. Though one could forgive the band for cutting it from the CD version of the album—it’s sort of an odd man out, in spite of its self-contained glory. A cover of Baby Dee’s “So Sad” is likewise a worthwhile addition, though more impressive is the band’s nine-minute cover of Talk Talk’s “The Rainbow.” Seeing as Talk Talk’s influence casts a heavy shadow on some of the band’s work, it’s a natural choice, even if it is a really long and ambitious choice.
The group’s live tracks are equally wonderful, particularly Meiburg’s solo take on classic murder ballad “Henry Lee.” Similarly, their stripped-down acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, piano and dulcimer version of “Rooks” casts the song in a new, `unplugged’ light. While the removal of the bursts of distortion take out some of its explosive intensity, there remains a lingering, palpable tension. While EPs of this ilk often come crammed with unnecessary filler, the bulk of the material on The Snow Leopard is well worth adding to your iTunes library. Even when left to compiling a collection of b-sides and live tracks, Shearwater makes the most of the space at hand.