Monday, September 15, 2008

Music Review - Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Essentially a sequel to 2007’s The Stage Names, which was briefly considered for release as a two-disc album before being scaled down to a single album, Okkervil River's The Stand Ins uses central images of musicians and life on the stage to again address many of the themes that first surfaced on the band's 2007 album. Such a back story might also perhaps keep some of the more fickle indie music fans from initially dismissing Okkervil River’s latest effort as a collection of also-rans or throwaways that weren’t good enough for inclusion on The Stage Names.

Against a backdrop of songs that ranged from straight-on rockers to hushed ballads, singer and lyricist Will Sheff explored themes of death, celebrity, identity, and life’s little tragedies and disappointments throughout The Stage Names, often with a dark and black sense of humor. Though perhaps not quite as bleak as 2005’s Black Sheep Boy – that one could turn even the most emotionless hardass into a weeping, quivering emo ball of misery – it was still a decidedly emotional, and engaging, album. To be sure, The Stand Ins does in many ways sound like a coherent musical and thematic extension of its predecessor. It still predominantly deals in the dark stuff; though not exactly brooding – “On Tour With Zykos” and “Blue Tulip” being the obvious exceptions – it’s heavy on gloom and short on even the faintest glimmer of hope. “Singer Songwriter” addresses the nature of fame with a harsh dismissal of its protagonist’s legacy: “the kids once grown up are going to walk away.” “Pop Lie” likewise treads this territory with similar results; in this case the song drips with contempt as Sheff cynically implicates musicians and fans as frauds in the same game of (self) deception.

Tragic figures and their equally tragic stories are invoked in other songs. “Starry Stairs,” previously available on the bonus track edition of The Stage Names (at least it sounds the same to these ruined ears) , likely references doomed porno actress Shannon Wilsey (check the previous album’s “Savannah Smiles,” perhaps one of the most depressing songs ever recorded, and then mope and sob appropriately). Coupled with a nice horn arrangement, the song finds its character uneasily on display (“all these guys/all these curious sets of eyes/safe behind the TV screen”) and filled with regret ("what a hot half life I half lived"). Unlike The Stage Names, there isn’t much humor this time around. The possible dry humor of “Pop Lie,” which describes a supposed intellectual musician who did his “thesis on the gospel of Thomas,” is shown to be a mirage, supplanted by a mocking tone in which Sheff tells the musician that his “world is gonna change nothing.” “On Tour With Zykos” is drenched in piano and describes a relationship on the skids, with some harsh language that probably wouldn’t work well as a wedding vow: “take your shit/take your clothes and get out of my home.” All that’s left for the narrator is “another day tossed and done.” At times this cynicism threatens to overwhelm the listener; it’s not quite Berlin but it’s not too far off.

The album reveals some stylistic shifts for the band. Three brief orchestral instrumentals are scattered throughout, though these sometimes interrupt the album’s overall flow. The music breaks from previous Okkervil River albums in other ways. “Singer Songwriter” incorporates elements of country music, “Starry Stairs” relies heavily on a horn arrangement, “Pop Lie” is evocative of 1980s new wave, “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” has a carnival feel to it, and “Lost Coastlines” has enough tempo and instrumental changes to make the listener dizzy (in a good way). “Pull down the shades/let’s kill the morning,” Sheff sings in closing track “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979.” Though perhaps not as immediate as final track “John Allyn Smith Sails” from The Stage Names, it’s a resigned and fitting conclusion to Okkervil River’s latest album. Emotional without being weepy, literate without being pretentious, The Stand Ins is another excellent release from a highly creative and evolving band.

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