I’ve really got to hand it to Will Sheff and the Okkervil River bunch. Not only did they put out, bar none, my favorite record of the year with The Stand Ins, but they also managed to knock me flat on my ass twice–once at Webster Hall and again at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
The Stand Ins continues where the band’s last album, The Stage Names, left off, attacking the superficiality and deception found in modern art and media. Whereas The Stage Names primarily discussed television and movies, The Stand Ins firmly sets its target on the music industry. “Pop Lie” discusses at length the ways in which popular singers manipulate their audiences into singing and dancing and believing the stories they’re singing along to are true. “Singer Songwriter” is a character study of a modern aristocrat who tries to downplay his wealth by drowning himself in pretentious art. Singer Will Sheff’s lyrics are, as per usual, beautifully constructed and articulate without ever sounding pretentious himself. He is able to cut through facades as quickly as he paints them with melodies so infectious you’ll want to sing and dance along yourself. Of course, Mr. Sheff speaks only the truth, or so he’d like you to believe.
Even the slower tracks are beautiful in their own ways, particularly the epic centerpiece of “Blue Tulip” and the self-deprecating “On Tour With Zykos,” which chronicles the aftermath of a one-night stand between a rock star and one of his fans. The view shifts from the fan, who only wants to love the man she idolizes, to the rock star himself, who is revealed to live a pathetic, vapid life in spite of the deep poetry he’s “supposed to” write.
Sheff’s lyrics are so literate that the characters in his songs become as interesting and engrossing as the songs themselves. My previous review of Black Sheep Boy discussed this as well, and while in the three years since that album’s release it would have been pretty easy for Sheff to simply get lazy and fall for tired, cliched rhymes, he’s as sharp with his wordplay as ever.
God, listen to me. I sound like I write for Pitchfork. Anyways…
Picture from Brooklyn Vegan
I saw Okkervil River for the first time on October 6th in Webster Hall. It was the first night of their two-night Webster Hall stand, and it was flawless. I think the reason they don’t tour as regularly as other bands is because Will Sheff just doesn’t have it in him to give that much energy every night. He really gave the show everything he had; I remember thinking that he probably wouldn’t scream all the parts of songs like “Black” or “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe,” and time after time I was proved wrong. Also worth mentioning is the acoustic ballad “A Stone,” during which Webster Hall was completely silent. It was chilling, to say the least, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. By the time they ended with “Westfall,” it seemed like the crowd wasn’t willing to let them go.
So, naturally I had to go see them again. As an early Hanukkah present I bought Heather tickets to see Sheff play an acoustic set at Music Hall of Williamsburg. The difference with a lot of the songs was like night and day; “Our Life…” was slowed down considerably and made much more intense from guitar work by Wrens frontman and show opener Charles Bissell.
Here’s to 2009. Please play more shows.