Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins
The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar, 2008)
Download: Okkervil RIver - "Pop Lie"
Download: Okkervil RIver - "Lost Coastlines"
Okkervil River, since 2005, has emerged from a fairly mediocre career to ride a massive wave of success, from fans and critics alike. Following up the mature, complex and fascinating Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil released the masterful The Stage Names. While Sheff used his lyrics to plumb the depths of despair, the rest of the band crafted a bold and tight package in which to parse Sheff’s lyrics.
The Stand-Ins, their latest release, falls somewhat short of the near-perfection of The Stage Names, but still makes for a worthy follow-up. Conceived as the second half of The Stage Names, Stand-Ins retreads some of the same themes and stories, putting more meat on their bones. Whether he’s reflecting on misery of assorted kinds, musing on the relationship between performer and fan or giving himself over to despair, Will Sheff always proves to be one of the most densely – and naturally – meaningful lyricists in rock. On “On Tour With Zykos,” Sheff captures the mundane aspects of coming home and crashing when you should be working, writing, or doing something (anything!) productive. His hesitating, drawling delivery just reinforces the foot-dragging aspects of day-to-day life.
Perhaps a little paradoxically, the downtrodden nature of the lyrics on both The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins is what makes the fact that the albums were released as separate bodies of work function especially well. If the two albums had been released together, people would have died of despair about halfway through. But by cutting them apart and giving people the time to appreciate the two bodies as separate, the audience is able to appreciate The Stand-Ins as a contemplation on the same topics rather than as an extended meditation.
One of Okkervil's strongest selling points is their ability to draw influences from a multitude of bands and styles without sounding forced or clunky. The buzzing orchestral keyboards of "The Stand-Ins, One" are abruptly displaced by the jangling, bass-heavy "Lost Coastlines." Sheff, along with recently departed (to concentrate on Shearwater) guitar player Jonathan Meiburg, alternate vocals, with Meiburg taking the smooth, almost jazzy parts and Sheff bouncing along with the faster paced parts. It's a fun effect that I wished they would have used more often on previous albums. And as soon as the song is over, the group changes directions, infusing their jangly pop rock with dewey-eyed folk, belieing the dismal nature of "Singer Songwriter's" lyrics. Then, in another sharp contrast, Okkervil goes off into soulful bluesy jamming on "Starry Stairs."
And they keep up the pace the whole album. The Stand-Ins is an extravagant mixture of styles, altering and mutating all the way through while still holding to a core of jangly, excitable rock. It doesn't have quite the same tightness or quotability of The Stage Names, but it’s a damn good follow-up.
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