Shearwater's new album, Fellow Travelers, is built around a neat gimmick: Each of its 10 songs pays tribute to an artist with whom the band has toured. Given that musicians tend to tour with like-minded peers, it's no surprise that Fellow Travelers provides a reasonably natural extension of Shearwater's stormy but hooky, prettily dramatic sound.
But a list of the artists covered sprawls in a surprising number of directions. It's tough to sketch a through-line that intersects with both the tortured artiness of Xiu Xiu ("I Luv the Valley OH!!") and the stridently soaring accessibility of Coldplay ("Hurts Like Heaven"), and yet there they are, back to back near the beginning of Fellow Travelers. Elsewhere, the album houses a faithfully propulsive cover of Folk Implosion's "Natural One" — a song that requires and receives precious little tinkering — as well as work by artists that fit more seamlessly alongside Shearwater, like Wye Oak ("Mary Is Mary") and St. Vincent ("Cheerleader").
It's telling, though, that Fellow Travelers' best song is one of the band's own: A beautifully brooding Shearwater original, "A Wake for the Minotaur" pairs singer Jonathan Meiburg with the great Sharon Van Etten for a languid, entrancing ballad. It's fascinating to hear Shearwater function as a skeleton key that opens up the works of Xiu Xiu and Coldplay and St. Vincent alike, but nothing sounds quite like Shearwater itself.