Review Summary: Wordy indie rockers continue to outperform their peers
On paper there is little that sets Okkervil River apart from a host of similarly minded indie rockers. They’re a scrappy collective, with a literary minded frontman who’s yelpy voice is equally indebted to Robert Smith and Morrissey. Throughout their records, strings, horns, mandolin, and pedal steel – all hallmarks of the new millennium of indie rock – will pop up. Yet Okkervil River have managed to become one of the most interesting and enjoyable bands playing today.
It helps that they have two great albums behind them: 2005’s dark Black Sheep Boy
and last years The Stage Names
. Both are concept albums with strikingly different themes. Black Sheep Boy
makes good on its title, weaving a tale of murder and betrayal, while The Stages Names
takes a wry, at times melancholic, look at show business. The bands latest record, The Stands Ins
is a continuation of The Stage Names
, following its tone both musically and lyrically (the album covers even synch up) Fortunately, the album also follows The Stage Names
in quality. Though the album was recorded in a state of lineup flux – Charlie Bison of the Wrens fills in on electric guitar and keyboardist Jonathan Marburg left the band shortly after this was recorded – the band sounds tight and focused without undercutting their ramshackle sound.
The Stand Ins
opens with the jaunty, bouncing “Lost Coastlines”. Will Sheff, the bands frontman and primary songwriter, transitions from a suave croon to his more recognizable yelping as he tells the story of a lost castaway. Sheff manages to be both bitingly funny and wistfully melancholic throughout the album. On “Singer Songwriter”, he details a wealthy, talentless songwriter, and then follows it with the mournful “Starry Stairs”. Here, over a catchy minor groove, he sings from the perspective of a pornstar: “They ask for blood/what to you think this woman’s made of/I stuck a small thin pin in my thumb/they dreamt a low, long line to be crossed/and I crossed”. Both these songs are sequels of sorts to songs from The Stage Name
(“You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock ‘n Roll Man” and “Savannah Smiles” respectively), but they flesh out different aspects of their characters.
Scheff has a certain knack for writing about musicians. Besides “Singer Songwriter”, he turns in songs like the frenetic new wave of “Pop Lie” about the “liar who lied in his pop song”. “On Tour With Zykos” stands as an affecting portrait of both groupies and the musicians who attract them. The songs closing line, “so I wonder who you got your hooks in tonight/was she happy to be hooked /and on your arm did she feel alive/her head alright” offers a succinct view of the bitterness that tinges Sheffs work. But even when Sheff’s words become overly literary, the band’s fine tuned racket always livens things up. The horn arrangements and simple, driving rhythms help flesh out Sheffs lyrics.
The Stand Ins
, much like Okkervil River’s other albums, shines as a cohesive album. Though all the songs, save for the orchestral snippets interspersed throughout the album, stand up on their own, they fit perfectly with one another throughout the album’s forty minutes. Okkervil River seem untouched by the digital age, content to make fascinating albums that are designed to ebb and flow.