SHEARWATER leader Jonathan Meiburg cuts a slight figure, but onstage, his eyes burn with ferocity. Wildly ambitious, he shot for the moon on the Austin band’s recent trilogy (2006’s Palo Santo , 2008’s Rook, and 2010’s The Golden Archipelago ). Loaded with diffuse instrumentation (everything from glockenspiels to Telecasters) and dynamic ranges rarely heard this side of classical music, the albums were loosely framed around mankind’s obliviousness to the havoc it’s causing in the natural world. Archipelago even came with a fifty-page “dossier.” Like so many bands blazing their own trails, Shearwater has ended up with a small group of fiercely devoted followers. Hoping to avoid preaching to the choir, Meiburg dropped hints that the band’s next release would be a rock and roll album. Not quite. ANIMAL JOY (Sub Pop) does drop the tempo shifts, rev up the excitement, and focus on a few musicians—specifically, bassist Kimberly Burke, drummer Thor Harris (who gets a workout here), and Meiburg, who, along with Wye Oak’s Andy Stack, delivers some heroic guitar aerobics. Yet despite the pounding beats and power-chord mayhem, this is still a lush and textured recording. Songs are crammed full of ideas, and Meiburg layers in sonic explosions and armadas of backing vocals. His voice, booming with gravitas in the mid-range, wavering and delicate in falsetto, is a hard sell to those who crave rock machismo. But it’s also a key component of the band’s uniqueness.