Okkervil River
The Stage Names



by br3ad_man EMERITUS
August 6th, 2007 | 36 replies

Release Date: 2007 | Tracklist

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
Perfect length

Drops a little towards the middle

Recommended Songs
Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe
Savannah Smiles
John Allyn Smith Sails

Final Rating: 4/5

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user ratings (245)
other reviews of this album
The Door Mouse (4)
Okkervil River fuses simplistic instrumentals with a loud broad voice for their 2007 effort The Stag...

Comments:Add a Comment 
The Door Mouse
August 7th 2007


Album Rating: 3.5

This album is pretty good. You might disagree with me here but his voice really sounds like Bono/ David Byrne.

August 7th 2007


Will Sheff's songwriting is certainly not short on the sad bastardness of Bright Eyes

I lol'd
This is interesting; Savannah Smiles is the best I've heard so far, twinkly lullabys ftwThis Message Edited On 08.07.07

August 7th 2007


I saw these guys live last month and they were amazing.
Good review.This Message Edited On 08.07.07

August 8th 2007


Album Rating: 2.5

I've listened to this a couple of times and just couldn't get into it. I can see why so many people enjoy it, it's catchy, accessible, and fun to listen to but it just doesn't do much for me.

August 9th 2007


Album Rating: 5.0

I love this album

August 10th 2007


The Decemberists without the comical, over-the-top elements would be boring. This Message Edited On 08.10.07

August 11th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

Possibly, but Okkervil River aren't.

August 16th 2007


Album Rating: 3.5

I'll never forgive you for the NMH dig.

This album is cool but not a patch on those three bands you mentioned.

The Door Mouse
August 29th 2007


Album Rating: 3.5

Yeah it is. I should get Black Sheep Boy some time.

October 23rd 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

This is a totally good album. Unless It's Kicks is amazing, as is You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man.

Smashing review.

December 18th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

Awesome album! It took me awhile to really warm up to it, but now I think its a smidgen better than Black Sheep Boy.

January 16th 2008


Album Rating: 4.0

this album is such a grower! jesus

January 16th 2008


Their next album's theme should center around the woes of being boring musicians.

January 20th 2008


Album Rating: 4.0

This is a really great album. I love his voice for some reason.

January 29th 2008


Album Rating: 3.5

i really like this, something cathartic about it.

plus, "unless it kicks" for all it's repetition is truly a great song that's firmly lodged itself in my brain.

Oh my.

May 17th 2008


Album Rating: 3.5

This is a really good album. And the review was just as good.

July 23rd 2008


Album Rating: 3.5

It’s just a baaaad movieee

where there’s nooo cryinggg

handing the key tooo mee

in this Red Lion

where the lock that you locked in the suite says there’s nooo pryinggg.

When the breath that you breathed in the street screams there’s noo scienceee.

When you look how you looked then to me, then I cease lying

and fall into silence.

July 23rd 2008


Album Rating: 4.5

the closer is delicious

July 23rd 2008


Album Rating: 3.5

I listen to the first song, a lot, get my fill, and move onto something else. The rest of the album is good, I just absolutely love the first song.

December 31st 2008


Ok question for everyone. Does anyone see a huge similarity between Okkervil River and Arcade Fire or is it just me? At Least on "Our Life Is Not A Movie or Maybe" I like them both but heard Arcade Fire's stuff before hearing Okkervil's stuff and I kind of feel like that track could fit right in on Neon Bible.

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