Monday, August 13, 2007

Okkervil River - The Stage Names

Okkervil River
The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar, 2007)
Grade: A-

Download: Okkervil River - "A Girl In Port"
Download: Okkervil River - "You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man"

Everyone knows, and is wary of, a person who tries way, way too hard. Most people tell you that the way to obtain success in life is to work your ass off, which is true. However, what is also true is that if you try too hard, you'll come off as desperate and may ultimately alienate the people you're trying to reach.

In trying to paint a vivid picture of a musician's life in cinematic terms (over the course of only nine tracks to boot), songwriter Will Sheff (who was an English major at Macalester College in St. Paul) is risking a lot, if only because a) most people aren't musicians and therefore b) wouldn't necessarily be able to relate to the ups and downs and the loneliness that musicians face on the road.

So far, it would seem that the cards are stacked against Sheff and his band, Okkervil River. However, along with alcohol, there is another social lubricant that does wonders for helping to understand someone to whom you don't necessarily relate: great music. Luckily, Okkervil River's new album, The Stage Names, is filled with it.

Though one might tire of Sheff's vocal dramatics (there's a thin line between being grandiose and just being wailing and melodramatic), there's absolutely no denying the fact that this record is quite simply one great song after another, whether it's the singsongy "Our Life is Not A Movie," the rockin' "Unless It Kicks" or the shoo-be-doo-wop shuffle of "Hand To Take Hold Of." Later on in the album, we get the soft, orchestral lullaby "Savannah Smiles," the heartbreaking "Plus Ones" (which also namechecks ? and The Mysterians) and the epic (in scope, not length) Beach Boys-quoting "John Allyn Smith Smiles."

So while Okkervil River's meta-concept album may strike some as being a bit much (Sheff has the Bright Eyes tendency of being so emotional that it borders on pretension) they'll be singing along with his glorious music, even if they can't relate to the story that Sheff tells.

(Jonathan Graef)

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