Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Reviews:: Okkervill River The Stage Names

The new Okkervil River album might be the best of the "most anticipated follow-up" releases of the year. I know the band has been around forever and created a loyal fan base, but after Black Sheep Boy they jumped into the upper echelon of Indie rock bands. The record was critically acclaimed and Sheff was applauded (rightfully so) for his narrative about the prodigal son. The slow burning record highlighted Sheff's song writing abilities, and how well he could tell a story as the first person perspective made the songs so powerful and personal. The sounds seemed heavy, plodding, defeated and you couldn't listen to the record and not feel the weight of the experience.

Sadly, any clever or creative narrative gets type cast as a super intelligent, literary work, which is a slap in the face to any musician. Comparing a book to a song is unfair, so always forcing that comparison is frustrating to the writer and the listener. A song takes an emotion or an event and tries to trigger a response. A song writer doesn't have hundreds of pages to work with. A song writer doesn't have multiple chances for you to decide if you like the song or not. If you aren't hooked by the opening verse, you will simply hit skip or delete. That's why it was unsettling when people started to only talk about Sheff, not the rest of the band.

It's an easy thing to do; lyrically he is one of the best in the business. Plus Ones is a perfect example of Sheff's wit and creativity. You can't help but smile as he talks about the 100th red balloon or the 51st way to leave your lover. For three minutes you are captured by the lyrics and how adding one to the magical numbers we've heard in songs takes all the shine off the ideas. It's that creativity that makes Sheff a great song writer, but don't be fooled into thinking this record can only be enjoyed on a lyrical level.

Sure, he returns to the themed, focused subject - The Stage Names is the chronicling of the life and frustrations of a mid level rock band - but the record is surprisingly rocking and the lyrics are just one aspect of the package. Meinburg's backing vocals, the heavy rocking guitar work (Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe evolves into a full on rock song). Sheff's narrative is, as always, engaging but I find myself drifting away from the strain and emotion of his voice and simply enjoying the music. The big hook on Unless It's Kicks gallops at a pace you wouldn't expect from the band and is infectious. The bass / tambourine back bone of A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene are as important to the track as Sheff's rapid fire delivery, and the horns and oohs add soul to the track. You are three songs into the nine song album before you can even catch your breath (as opposed to feeling the pain of the lead character waiting to draw his last breath on Black Sheep Boy).

By contrast, the slower numbers on The Stage Names seem more personal, more intimate. The tick-tock percussion, bowed strings and xylophones are all that Sheff needs to frame his story on Savannah Smiles, but the record regains its lighter sounds on Plus Ones. Even A Girl in Port grows slowly, but surely over the course of the 6+ minutes. The lap steel drips with the emotion of the lyrics and the drums seem to be hit with an exhaustive, pain instead of a crisp stroke. Hearing the band transition from the acoustic lines of John Allyn Smith Sails to a rocking, heartfelt take on Sloop John B to close the record shows how tight and essential each member is to the amazing success of the songs.
MP3:: Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe

Posted at 5:06 PM by ack :: 0 comments

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