Sunday, August 12, 2007

Okkervil River / "The Stage Names"

In 2005, when Will Sheff and his Okkervil River bandmates released "Black Sheep Boy," it was released to glowing reviews and a nice buzz in the indie community by those fortunate enough to have heard it. In the time since, that album has only grown in stature to the point that many now consider it an indie rock masterpiece. Sheff was able to combine the literacy of Meloy (Colin, of the Decemberists) with the vocal passion of Mangum (Jeff, of Neutral Milk Hotel) along with the alternative folk rock (yes, such a genre exists) of his bandmates. At its best, on songs such as "For Real," "A Stone," and "Black," the combination is one which captivates and draws the listener further and further into the world of the Black Sheep Boy with each successive listen. It's an album I still return to with great frequency.

Now with expectations increased and their name having gained a good deal of recognition in the music community, Okkervil River returns with the follow-up, "The Stage Names." The bad news is that this album is unlike "Black Sheep Boy" both sonically and topically. The good news is it will leave only the harshest of critics disappointed. Sonically, "BSB" went with a less-is-more approach, moving the instrumentation to the background as to let Sheff's vocals and lyrics carry the album. This time around, the band brought in Jim Eno (of the group Spoon) to help with the production and mixing and his influence is apparent. Guitars, piano, organ, coronet, xylophone, maracas, tambourine, mandolin, and even a mellotron are brought in to the studio, creating a much bigger sound than on the album's predecessor. Even the more subdued numbers, such as "Savannah's Smile," are complete with a full orchestra and Sheff's vocals breeze over the waves of sounds.

Topically, while Black Sheep Boy was largely a narrative of a fictional character (though some accounts claim it was based upon folk musician Tim Hardin), "Stage Names" is autobiographical in nature. It deals with Sheff's (who again wrote all the lyrics on this album) observations of character ("Girl in Port"), his relationship angst ("Plus Ones"), and ultimately his failure ("John Allyn Smith Sails"). Though the changes are certainly a change from the much beloved "BSB," the band makes them work. This is because of the strength and vulnerability of Sheff's songwriting.

The best example is the aforementioned (and album closing) "John Allyn Smith Sails." Sonically it sounds like it could fit right on to "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" with its strong horn section, anxious vocals, and layers of music. However, what most stands out is the lyrics. In it's opening lines, the speaker promises "by the second verse, dear friends, my head will burst and my life will end." He condemns himself a failure, envisions his death and funeral, goes to a bar, gets drunk, and just as he's about to go through with his suicide he thinks of the impact upon his family the action will have. He still prepares to go through with it, but at the very last second witholds. The power of the act is amplified by the speaker feeling as though his inability to kill himself is not an act of courage or overcoming, but rather one of failure. He failed to go through with his plan.

This is "The Stage Names." It's depressing. It's the sound of an artist realizing he can't do it. Whether the inspiration for the album was personal termoil or an feeling that the band wouldn't be able to top its previous album is open to interpretation. Much like Nirvana's "In Utero" some 14 years ago, Okkervil River isn't out to try and one-up it's masterpiece. Sheff is human, after all, and it's that humanity which makes "Stage Names" a more connecting and immediate album than "Black Sheep Boy,"even if it may not be a better one.

Rating: 8.2

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