Autobiographical Order No. 93: Shearwater – Palo Santo: Expanded

Rarely in life do we ever get the chance to have a do-over. Oh, we want to do it all the time, but it doesn’t usually work out that way. What’s in the past is best left in the past, and whether or not you’re happy with it, sometimes you have to move on. I can’t tell you how many pieces of writing I wish I could have improved, or things I could have said differently to different people — even though they probably don’t even remember. But it’s also not really constructive to put all your energy into re-trying something you’ve already done.

Shearwater did get a rare opportunity to do something a second time, however, and it ended up being their best album. Generally speaking, when most bands record old material a second time, it’s not much to write home about. Gang of Four released a re-recorded set of old songs back in 2005 that mostly existed to have something to sell on their reunion tour, as best I can tell. Cracker once re-recorded all of their hits because Virgin wouldn’t give up the rights to their songs, so in a sense it was more of a nose-thumbing than a commercial product. But when Austin’s Shearwater signed with Matador Records in 2007, their first order of business was to reissue their outstanding 2006 album Palo Santo. But they wanted to do it on their own terms.

On its own, Palo Santo is a great album, with 11 outstanding songs. And there’s nothing wrong with the Misra Records version, necessarily. But the band didn’t really like the recordings of some of the songs. So instead of releasing the album as-is, they got back in the studio to record about half of it a second time, to finally get those songs right. Some of the songs have a bit more punch (“Johnny Viola”, “Seventy-Four Seventy-Five”), and some are more dramatic (“La Dame Et La Licorne”). But the most notable difference is on “Red Sea, Black Sea,” which trades a sort of lo-fi sounding guitar tap for a more fleshed-out sound with both guitar and banjo, and it’s a pretty vast improvement.

They added some outtakes on a second LP, and the finished result became Palo Santo: Expanded. It’s one of the great, underrated indie rock records of the ’00s, and I don’t say that lightly. (I tend to think that blog-rock ruined everything around 2006.) The funny thing about the do-over is that one of my favorite songs, the dreamy lullaby “Nobody,” was left basically unchanged from its original version. Sometimes, you also have to acknowledge when you did something right the first time.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

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