Friday, August 15, 2008

An Impressive Cast

Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar, 2008)

Sometimes I associate particular bands or specific albums with times and places. Okkervil River, about whom I’ve enthused rapturously here several times, are inexorably linked with my visit to Toronto, where I purchased their outstanding ‘Black Sheep Boy’ album on a whim (mostly because I adore the Tim Hardin song that inspired it). That album, with its literary brand of songwriting, made virtues out of melodrama and excess, in a way that the more photogenic and well-promoted Conor Oberst clearly aspires to but, for me at least, never quite achieves. ‘The Stand-Ins’, with its frequent allusions to band life and being on tour, is clearly an album intended to be divorced from specific locations, if not from memories.

Last year’s ‘The Stage Names’ again demonstrated Will Sheff’s presentation of songs as miniature novels – squeezing in a wealth of intelligent musings, quirky images and elaborate character portraits. Musically, it was a different beast though – at times veering into a more upbeat and exuberant stomp. ‘The Stand-Ins’ is a collection of songs recorded at the same time but then shelved when it was decided a double album would be too great an indulgence. It’s clearly very much a companion piece, revisiting some of the characters and themes first introduced in ‘The Stage Names’, particularly the acting/movie concept, seafaring imagery and emphasis on songs about being in a band (Sheff shares a lot of songwriting qualities and characteristics with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady). 'Starry Stairs' even continues the story of 'Savannah Smiles' from the previous album.

The initial reaction on the blogosphere seems to be one of mild disappointment, at least when ‘The Stand Ins’ is judged by the band’s so far consistently high standards. On the surface, it’s easy to see the reasons for this. At 40 minutes, including three instrumental interludes, it’s surprisingly concise and there’s little doubt that the group have moved towards something more musically accessible. The Motown stomp that informed a couple of tracks on ‘The Stage Names’ is in full flight here, and ‘Starry Staired’ even flirts with Memphis soul horns.

I’m not underwhelmed by this articulate, moving and intelligently designed record though. If Sheff’s linguistic intricacies can find a wider audience, I’m all in favour of a greater reliance on standard melodies and immediate hooks. His lyrics here are frequently wonderful, often capturing something melancholy or poignant with free-flowing ease. ‘On Tour With Zykos’ movingly details the emotions of a lover left-behind as the touring band move on.

Closer to home perhaps, ‘Lost Coastlines’, on which Sheff duets with the now- departed Jonathan Meiburg, is particularly affecting. The two deploy shipping metaphors to express the inherent difficulties in keeping a band together. Meiburg’s smooth but charismatic baritone makes for some restrained relief from Sheff’s emoting. The final lines sum up life in a band succinctly and perceptively: ‘Every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and wide, and if we’ve lost our way, well no-one’s gonna say it outright.’ When strings and horns enter in the song’s final section, it seems to elevate the song to something vivid and dramatic, but which also emphasises the song’s mournful core.

Sometimes the lyrics are so cutting and insightful that they jar with the jauntiness of the music. The contrast is surprisingly effective on ‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex’, where Sheff ruminates eloquently on resuming contact with an ex from three years ago who has progressed to celebrity status (‘you look the same on TV as when you were mine’). The music veers between a familiar chiming theme and moments of reflective calm.

It’s a song full of hypothetical conjectures, resentment and devastating regret – the sort of intense but futile emotions that are very common human failings. He imagines the girl’s sudden return: ‘…it’s a mixture of dumb jealousy and fear/that I might feel should she appear…as if it hasn’t been three years’. The song is made even more touching because it keeps one rational eye on a more uneventful, mundane reality (life is ‘slightly, disappointingly, just gliding by’). It ends with an inevitable resignation: ‘I remember every instance that you stung me, oh you’re so lovely, you’re so smart/ So go turn their heads, go knock ‘em dead, go break their hearts/And I know you will’. For all his self-absorbtion and self-pity, it’s hard not to sympathise with Sheff’s character’s pain, so artful is his expression of it.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the epic closing track, with its rather unmanageable title: ‘Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979’. Cambell was apparently a gay glam rock artist, whose star shone only briefly, eventually reduced to singing cabaret at parties as Cole Berlin. Suffering from AIDS, he committed suicide in 1983. The song has Campbell weakened, drinking on his own and ‘sick of singing the same songs’. The song’s conclusion would be absurdly grandiose in any other hands, with Campbell being lifted into space (presumably reflecting his thematic preoccupation with aliens).

Elsewhere, Sheff’s concerns are less weighty. ‘Singer Songwriter’ is the kind of snarling character assassination of which the young Bob Dylan could be proud (indeed, there’s more than a hint of ‘Positively 4th Street’ in the song’s nursery rhyme melody and insistent rhythm). ‘I saw your big sis on the year’s best book list/and your brother he manages bands’ Sheff rasps dismissively, before sneering ‘you’ve got wealth, you’ve got wealth/ What a bitch, they didn’t give you much else!’. The song surprises at its end by turning inward – with its cry of ‘your world isn’t gonna change nothing’ subtly becoming ‘our world isn’t gonna change nothing’, as if Sheff is condemning himself alongside his target. This self-reverential irony crops up again on ‘Pop Lie’, a song cynically sniping at songs with choruses designed to get people to sing along. The song itself of course has something approaching a singalong chorus, and a relentless energy that suggests unshakeable conviction.

Sometimes it’s the sheer combination of words Sheff uses that is most imaginative, from the ‘cuts from the Kinks’ on ‘Singer Songwriter’ to this wonderfully florid passage from ‘Lost Coastlines’: ‘Is that marionette real enough yet to step off that set and decide what a dance might mean to it’. Then there’s the conflicting emotions of ‘On Tour With Zykos’, with Sheff convincing in female character – ‘how come I shout goodbye when I just want to make this white lie big enough to climb inside with you’. It gets even better ‘I’m in disgust with desire from the guys who conspire at the only decent bar in town/and they wish they had me like I wish I had fire, what a sad way to be…’ It’s all observed with piercing clarity, but also with disarming tenderness and sensitivity.

Sheff has discovered ways and means of hitting all the right buttons with his arrangements, particularly with swelling strings and horns, that mean his ambitions are no longer forced or overwraught. He always uses the additional instruments to animate the sentiments and feelings of his songs. Listen to the way the organ subtly shadows the piano during ‘On Tour With Zykos’, before dramatically taking the lead as the song takes flight and then itself giving way to the strings.

There will some who will dislike the glimmer of light that fights against the melodramatic darkness the group communicated circa ‘Black Sheep Boy’. They may also dislike the fact that Sheff’s linguistic imagination has been fitted neatly into a crisper, more coherent musical template. But these songs are so much more than mere Motown pastiches – they are as much alive with America’s literary tradition as with its rich pop music heritage. His cast of recurring characters is as reminiscent of Raymond Carver as Bruce Springsteen.

This has been a long review, but Sheff writes songs that can be listened to repeatedly, with language that wraps itself around you and absorbs you completely. They cannot easily be summarised and paraphrased. Something new will emerge from his words and music with every play. This is a glorious record that, for all its emphasis on character and disguise, is very much filled with real life and real feeling. It shines a rare spotlight on those left behind or cruelly ignored, and even undercuts the self-aggrandising image of those putting on the whole show.

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