Austere Austin, Texas band Shearwater is much more than an Americana-inspired project. Representing a change from earlier releases, keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg's sharp falsetto, surrealistic narratives and prowling production skills are front and center. Previous Shearwater outings hit high critical marks, but Palo Santo is distinctly better, effortlessly connecting banjo-flicked folk (“Red Sea, Black Sea”), Stones-influenced riff rock (“White Waves”) and frenzied guitar noise (“Hail, Mary”).

Palo Santo is a record of contrasts. On one side of the push-pull are Meiburg's unadorned, poignant piano ballads and his almost overwhelmingly emotive vocals, on the other side are moments that nearly crumble beneath bursts of drums and electric guitar.

The 11 tracks transmit a foreboding, underlying pulse, as if there's no way a listener can turn back once the album begins. For example, the title cut is an ephemeral piece hinting at murky, hallucinatory depths, while barbed, humanistic “Seventy-four, Seventy-five” manages to be both abstruse and obstinate about the results of getting old.

Grade: A