Review Summary: Okkervil River strike gold again with this more rehearsed and focused album about the woes of being a musician.
2005's Black Sheep Boy
was an important record for Austin band Okkervil River
in that it was the album that got them noticed, at least on a much larger scale than its two predecessors. But Black Sheep Boy
was also important because it was the band's best release to date; a mastery of their sound and a gorgeous balance between multiple styles of song that all contributed to the album as a whole, not to mention the genius of singer/songwriter Will Sheff and his anxious, explosive vocal delivery. The only really puzzling thing about the modest success of Black Sheep Boy
is that it took until album three for Okkervil River to be discovered in a significant way.
Okkervil River's sound is similar to artists such as The Decemberists
, Bright Eyes
and Neutral Milk Hotel
and yet they seem to take the best parts of those three groups and leave out their less attractive qualities. While their records seem to have themes and use grandiose arrangements, they're nowhere near as theatrical, comical, over-the-top or downright silly as hipster favourites The Decemberists. Likewise, Will Sheff's songwriting is certainly not short on the sad bastardness of Bright Eyes, but it manages to exist without the melodrama and with far more to offer the listener. Finally, Okkervil River are far more readily accessible and less cryptic than Neutral Milk Hotel, both lyrically and in the existence of a singer with a voice that's, you know, listenable. With all of these things in mind, it's confusing and mildly frustrating that Okkervil River haven't caught on at the same level as the rest of these bands, but with a bit of luck, The Stage Names
will be the record that does it for them.
Where Black Sheep Boy
felt like a fairly self-conscious record, The Stage Names
is far more easy-going. This is, perhaps, due to the feeling that the record is a much more rehearsed affair than its predecessor; each song and idea is thoroughly developed, but rarely stretched. Resultantly, Sheff and co feel far more confident with their efforts on each of the album's nine songs than they did on Black Sheep Boy
. Nine songs also happens to be the perfect length for this particular album in that as a unifying work and much like each song, it feels thoroughly and satisfyingly developed without being stretched. Album opener "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" is perhaps the best demonstration of Okkervil River's newfound confidence. Contrasting quiet verses with climatic build-ups to more intense choruses, "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" is truly the sound of a bold Okkervil River putting their best foot forward. "It's just a life story/With no climax", Sheff sings over a lone quiet guitar before the explosion of the chorus. "Our Life..." features a stunningly catchy wordless hook that is highly reminiscent of The Arcade Fire
and their new album Neon Bible
. Unlike Neon Bible
, however, The Stage Names
feels far less structured and far more energetic. Perhaps what is most definitive of The Stage Names
is its nervous energy and sense of urgency, which often sees songs exploding dynamically and ending up far, far away from where they started. Of course, the band never seem opposed to toning it down a little and softer tracks like "Savannah Smiles" end up being true highlights.
The Stage Names
is essentially an album about the pitfalls of being in a band; the boredom, the woes of touring, the coming and going of creativity and general monotony of life as a musician. On paper, this may sound overdone, trite, cliche or boring, but Okkervil River somehow make it into a compelling concept. Sheff's songwriting allows for such subjects to be approached with more than just self-pity or requests for the listener's sympathy. In a way, he involves the listener and offers fresh perspectives on what he writes about. This is perhaps best exemplified in the album's closer, "John Allyn Smith Sails", a fictional suicide note of sorts. Though the song starts off suitably gloomy, it hits a peak halfway in when Sheff changes the direction of the song into a sort of adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B". Though the lyrics remain unhappy, as does Sheff's vocal delivery, the melody and arrangements can't help but elicit a grin from the listener, despite his/her knowing full well the content of the lyrics.
While Black Sheep Boy
may have seemed hard to top on its release, The Stage Names
causes exactly the same feeling. It's certainly not the same record and in some ways not even a similar one, but there can be no doubt that Okkervil River have struck gold again. The Stage Names
, despite being dense, is rarely difficult and is probably the band's most accessible effort to date. If nothing else, The Stage Names
establishes Okkervil River as a band very much capable of writing interesting and moving songs just as well, if not better, than the vast majority of their peers.
Focused but full of nervous energy
Each idea is well-developed
Drops a little towards the middle
Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe
John Allyn Smith Sails
Final Rating: 4/5