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Okkervil River’s Latest Album Diverse Fun

Observer Scene | Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Will Sheff had an idea for a double album, but decided against it, thinking it would be “super pretentious.” Maybe Sheff just didn’t want the inevitable, lazy comparisons to Exile that come with every double album because pretentiousness doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Okkervil River frontman, who once wrote an article to Mick Jagger telling the king of rock and roll, “for God’s sake, give it up.” There certainly are more people than Sheff who believe that the androgynous, British leader of the Stones has started it back up too many times, but it’s an odd declaration coming from the lyricist who most recently declared that he was in a “mid-level band.”

Sheff & Co. continues what they started with 2007’s lauded “The Stage Names” with their most recent release entitled “The Stand Ins.” The record is meant to be related to its predecessor and the covers match up to form the full picture. Yet, the titles are somewhat deceptive. “The Stand Ins” is not simply a b-side to “The Stage Names,” rather it explores similar themes, this time from the perspective of the not so successful artist. The irony here is not surprising considering Sheff’s hyper literate lyrics, which have led to comparisons with Portland’s “The Decemberists.” This linkage completely forgets that Sheff isn’t faking a British accent and a more apt analogy may be to fellow Austin indie rockers Spoon. Okkervil River could easily be opening for Spoon in an upcoming tour, a shame because Spoon should be opening for them. Sheff blows Spoon’s somewhat childish and annoying Britt Daniel out the water.

“The Stand Ins” is the fifth studio effort by Okkervil River, and is largely an album about an up and coming rock band trying to avoid categorization. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for Okkervil River: the second song of the album, “Lost Coastlines” roughly sounds like an up-tempo mixture of alt-country and indie-pop. The tune features a duet between Sheff and now defunct member of OR, Jonathan Meiburg, who is now officially devoted to his fellow Austin band, Shearwater. With this single, Sheff reflects on touring, commenting, “And every night finds us rocking and rolling/on waves wild and white/where we have lost our way/but no one will say it outright.” The song almost acts as Sheff’s goodbye letter to Meiburg, saying “Its alright, I understand why you had to leave, buddy.”

Unlike their previous album, “The Stand Ins” feature three brooding instrumental tracks, “Stand Ins, One,” “Stand Ins, Two,” “Stand Ins, Three,” possibly used to give the crew time to change the set. The new album is fun, diverse, and insightful, which is rare combination considering the recent direction of indie rock. Bands like The Hold Steady and The National somewhat compartmentalize themselves to create their respective worlds. This problem does not affect Okkervil River, whose reflective piano shines in the song “On Tour with Zykos,” which features Sheff commenting “I go home, take off clothes/ Smoke a bowl, watch a whole TV movie/ I was supposed to be writing the most beautiful poems,/ and completely revealing divine mysteries up close.” In the bombastic “Singer Songwriter,” Sheff calls out all hipsters, singing, “You’ve got taste. What a waste that that’s all you have.”

The highlights of “The Stand Ins” are the fifth and seventh songs, “Blue Tulip” and “Pop Lie” respectively, which are separated by a short, 31-second instrumental clip. “Blue Tulip” is a six and a half minute guitar driven epic, which echoes early Zeppelin and is followed by the explosive “Pop Lie,” where Sheff bounces and croons like he’s on fire. These two songs echo the brilliance of Okkervil River.

The album closes with “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979,” a song about the 70’s glam rocker, Jobriath. Campbell was both the first mass-marketed pop star as well as the first openly gay one. The huge marketing campaign behind Jobriath failed though, and he released only two poor selling albums. Campbell eventually changed his “stage name” to Colin Berlin, morphing into a cabaret singer who performed in diners and at small parties until he died of AIDS in 1983.

The ultimate lesson of “The Stand Ins” is to not get too wrapped up in rock culture, and it is meant to apply to the hipsters, pop lovers, arena rockers, and indie bands alike. Sheff gives give some simple advice: sit back, enjoy life, maybe catch a rock show, and during that time, God forbid, have some fun.

Contact James DuBray at jdubray@nd.edu.