Saturday, August 11, 2007

Okkervil River "The Stage Names"

Artist: Okkervil River
Album: The Stage Names
Label: Jagjaguwar
Release date: 7 August 2007
Genre: Rock
Style: Folk Rock/Indie Rock

01. Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
02. Unless It's Kicks
03. A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene
04. Savannah Smiles
05. Plus Ones
06. A Girl In Port
07. You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man
08. Title Track
09. John Allyn Smith Sails
Total running time: 41' 47"

[Okkervil River - Open MySpace Standalone Music Player]

[Okkervil River - Love To A Monster - Live Acoustic]

[Okkervil River - Song Of Our So-Called Friend - Live Acoustic]

"Despite biopics like Walk the Line and Ray, musicians' lives don't naturally translate to compelling movies. The relentless repetition of touring, the fleeting nature of creativity, the mundane conflicts between bandmates and hangers-on-- none of it seems all that visually or narratively interesting.

Fortunately, in the right hands, that life can make for a powerful album-- like The Stage Names, the fourth full-length from Austin group Okkervil River. This sort of self-reflection should come as no surprise from the band responsible for both "There Is No Hidden Track" from 2004's Sleep and Wake-Up Songs EP and especially Black Sheep Boy, an album based loosely on the exploits of doomed folk musician Tim Hardin; what does surprise is how much they can accomplish with this confessionalism, which is at its most potent on opener "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe".

As frontman Will Sheff howls hysterically about the lack of plot contrivances, epic endings, and dramatic camera angles in daily routine, the band becomes increasingly unhinged and aggressive, careening wildly from pent-up verses to explosive something-like-choruses-- an unexpected turn for an ensemble more associated with brains than brawn. Near the end, it all finally and artfully falls apart, leaving Sheff to close with the clincher about "a calm clicking, like a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie." Life gets two thumbs way, way down.

Interestingly, Okkervil River's career is in the midst of a trajectory that perfectly mirrors a traditional narrative arc. Their first two albums, Stars Too Small to Use and Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You Meet, formed the introduction; Down the River of Golden Dreams was the exposition; and Black Sheep Boy initiated the rising action. The Stage Names, if not the climax itself, at least significantly thickens the plot, seeming just as artistically unsurpassable as Black Sheep Boy did in 2005, and even more emotionally devastating.

With his fondness for dizzying wordplay (who else writes in parenthetical asides?) and lyrical ambiguity, Sheff may seem like the ultimate indie pessimist on the rollicking r&b number "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" or the caustic relationship deconstruction "Plus Ones", but actually, he's just a realist who captures scene conventions and rock'n'roll marginalia even as he sees the void beyond them. The mercurial River sound looser and louder than they did on Black Sheep Boy, especially on the dramatic ebb and flow of "Title Track", and the tenderly rootsy "A Girl in Port". In fact, Travis Nelsen's explosive drumwork and Jonathan Meiburg's backing vocals often lend The Stage Names the immediacy and recklessness of a live recording. Their energetic imprecision-- one of their most commanding features-- coils effortlessly into Sheff's self-reflexive lyrics; few groups can so nimbly or inventively use music as an extension of lyrical themes or vice versa.

Fittingly, The Stage Names ends with "John Allyn Smith Sails", a document of failure so complete that the main character can't even succeed in killing himself: "I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail, a fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed," Sheff sings, embodying doomed poet John Berryman (his birthname gives the song its title). "And I knew that my last lines were gone, while, stupidly, I lingered on." Berryman seems to be indie's new romantic failure-- he also inspired the Hold Steady's "Stuck Between Stations". Craig Finn had the Minneapolis connection; Okkervil River essentially rewrite the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" as a suicide note, turning the song into a joke so grim it's hard not to laugh.

Ultimately, The Stage Names shows how a vastly talented "mid-level band" (Sheff's words) sees itself, but there's no bitterness here, just overwhelming self-doubt and perseverance. Despite its density (they fit worlds into just nine songs), the album remains exciting and accessible, albeit highly sobering. It's about the folly of popular music and its attendant lifestyles, but these songs are so good and so moving that they only give us stupid, stubborn hope." [source]

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