Music shines in new installment from Okkervil River
Aug. 28, 2008
Okkervil River's The Stage Names was a fantastic concept album. It carried out the backstage musical idea cohesively and near flawlessly while lacing in enough subtle indie-rock, industry references and meta-music introspection to keep the Pitchforks of the world swooning for several fortnights. They just forgot about one thing: the music.
Sure, as with anything frontman Will Sheff touches, nearly all of the individual tracks felt like they could have worked as a beautifully intricate set of poetry or smaller parts in a larger piece of fiction. But outside of the epic roller-coaster journey through "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe" and the driving force of "Unless It's Kicks" there just wasn't much left to captivate. The album still had a half hour left of music that seemed to reach new sonic levels of sad-bastardyness (even for Sheff) that a teenage Conor Oberst would be proud of. If nothing else, the album provides the world (and by world, I probably mean some overambitious comparative literature-music major writing his thesis at Brown) with the defining piece of art in the must-something-be-tangibly-good-or-enjoyable-to-be-brilliant thesis.
The second installment in this motif, The Stand Ins, sees Sheff and the boys right this wrong. Although the cohesiveness of the concept as a whole suffers slightly this time around, the music itself seeps through the intricate themes to absolutely shine.
Once again, the album starts off with a couple of gems. Following the first of three brief instrumental interludes (assumedly serving as the musical intermissions to the "show"), the simple chords to the seemingly inauspicious "Lost Coastlines" begin its buildup. This track, which to all of our great relief proves Sheff can still mix mariner metaphors and intensely personal band inner workings ("Cause who said sailing is fine?/Leaving behind all the faces that I might replace if I tried on that long ride/Looking deep inside, but I don't want to look so deep inside yet") into the same stanza seamlessly. And the song becomes simultaneously disturbing and moving when the vocals of former member and current Shearwater wunderkind Jonathan Meiburg are added into the equations, shifting the song from one of the more effective "behind the music" ballads depicting the backstage turmoil of a band to an eerily cautionary tale of nonfiction.
Another strength in this second chapter is the sense that even the tracks most directly related to the larger theme have the power to stand on their own. Even the musical interludes seem fitting and well placed. As for the songs themselves, "Pop Lie" is a parody of the craft of writing pop songs solely for the sake of the sing-along hook ("All sweetly sung and succinctly stated/Words and music you calculated/To make you sing along/With your stereo on/As you stand in your shorts on your lawn"). And though its catchiness is obviously part of the joke, that doesn't make it any less clever and enjoyable.
Next, "On Tour With Zykos" turns a concept (essentially: groupies) that has historically walked a line somewhere between cliché, inhumane and misogynistic into a sullen but impressively realistic and poetic portrait ("I am discussed with desire by the guys who conspire at the only decent bar in town/And they drink MGDs/And they wish they had me like I wish I had fire/What a sad way to be").
The accompanying video project Okkervil River released in conjunction with this album seems to effectively point out key strengths of this album. The project sees several indie-folk all-stars such as Bon Iver and Carl "A.C." Newman "standing in" for the band on the album tracks and singing their own version of the songs.
This interesting experiment proves two things. First, it proves that these songs are universal enough to be effective when sung by artists vastly different from Sheff. But it also proves that only Sheff can fully bring out the complexities and poetic melancholies of his music. And when these two concepts come together as one in The Stand Ins, Okkervil River truly flourishes.