Tuesday, December 10, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 575: Okkervil River

I should be thinking about getting a good night’s sleep, but instead I’m thinking about getting in a music review.  CD Odyssey, you are a harsh mistress.

Disc 575 is…. The Stand Ins
Artist: Okkervil River

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? A disturbing little skull puppet.  For a guy with a skull for  a head this guy looks in desperate need of a skeleton, or maybe based on that green bottle in one hand he’s just really drunk. What’s up with his other hand you ask?  That’s a secret to reveal in a later review, so for now you’ll just have to wait and wonder.

How I Came To Know It:  A couple of years back I read an article about Okkervil River in a folk music magazine Sheila put in my Christmas stocking.  I checked into them and was told by some music store folks at Ditch not to get their most recent album (at the time, this was 2011’s“I Am Very Far”) because it wasn’t very indicative of their sound.  Undeterred, I went and Youtubed a bunch of their songs and liked the ones I heard on this album and also those on 2007’s “The Stage Names” so I bought those records first.

How It Stacks Up:  We have six of Okkervil River’s seven albums (still missing their debut, “Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See”).  Of the six, I’d say “The Stand Ins” is one of my favourites – I’ll put it second.

Rating:  4 stars

Okkervil River is one of those bands that deserves a lot more recognition than they get.  This makes “The Stand Ins” a little ironic, since the record is mostly about exploring ideas around being famous.  A bit of a reach for Okkervil River, but then again, maybe being moderately famous allows them the foot in both worlds necessary to write an album like this.

Since this is my first Okkervil River review, a quick note on the band’s general style.  They are firmly indie rock, landing somewhere between later Wilco and the Decemberists, with just a pale and wan hint of the Smiths adding a dollop of melancholia.

I will credit “The Stand Ins” for being a tight little album of only eleven tracks.  It could even be a little more substantive than it is, since three of those tracks (“Stand Ins” Parts One, Two and Three respectively) are just little instrumental mood pieces, each under a minute long.  I think the album establishes mood well enough without these song fragments.

The other eight songs are held together by both the cohesive themes of fame (and its quality of disconnecting us from meaningful human interaction).  They are also held together by the dreamy quality of Okkervil River’s music, which manages to submerge the dangerously manic quality of indie rock under ‘tear in my beer’ country song construction.  Lead singer Will Sheff’s voice - simultaneously high and angst-ridden and low and mournful - plays a big part.  He can sing well under the melody or soar over it with equal grace, and his choices always serve the song first, not the singer.

The song “Lost Coastlines,” sums up the album as a whole (as a good opening track does).  “Lost Coastlines” is a song about how making your way in the world can sometimes mean losing your bearings.  Sheff’s phrasing is amazing, and is a hallmark for the band’s overall style on the record.  Lines blend into one another, and also blend with the music in a way that makes the rhyming lines seem almost accidental.  The song drives you forward like a leaf in the wind, unsure where one bar ends and another begins.  It is delightfully disorienting – like a carnival ride for the subconscious.

As befits a band that stands in between fame and obscurity, for every song internalizing the experiences of celebrity, there is another about our reaction to those more famous than ourselves.  “Singer Songwriter” is a character study about the idly famous, receiving recognition for who they are over what they accomplish and “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” is about the pain of having ended a relationship with someone famous, and subsequently being confronted with that person’s image at every turn.

Calling and Not Calling My Ex” has a title that would usually have me frothing mad, but in this case I think it well suited to that conflict we have all felt when we desperately wanted to call someone we still care about, and the knowledge that ship has already sailed down its own lost coastline.

The best song on the record is “On Tour With Zykos,” a still, quiet song that steals into you all the more effectively for all of the tethered mania of the other tracks.  It is a song about the emptiness of the road, but it appeals to anyone feeling like they’ve lost their zest for life.  If you’ve ever had a dry spell in your creative endeavours these lines may appeal to you:

“I was supposed to be writing
the most beautiful poems,
and completely revealing
divine mysteries up close,
but I can’t say that I’m feeling
that much at all at 27 years old.
I’m discussed with desire
by the guys who conspire
at the only decent bar in town,
and they drink MGDs
and they wish they had me,
like I wish I had fire.”

This song has a lazy Sunday afternoon quality to its flow, in the same way that “Sunday Morning Coming Down” does.  It is a lazy, do-nothing day, but it is the undercurrent that you should be spending it differently that turns what should be relaxing into something sad and slightly tragic.

Then again, if that last line above had you thinking “that’s a bit maudlin” you’d be right.  Okkervil River like to steep themselves in the self-loathing (remember the touch of the Smiths I noted earlier) but it is done well for the most part, so I forgive it. “Blue Orchid” and the unforgivably pretentiously titled “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” both stray too far over the line of self-pity.

Half this album is excellent, and the other half is overwrought and self-indulgent, making a final rating difficult to decide.  Despite all its warts, “The Stand Ins” drew me in on the the good songs well enough that I was able to forgive its failings, and so right at the end I edged it into four star territory, if only just.

Best tracks:   Lost Coastlines, Singer Songwriter, Starry Stairs, On Tour With Zykos, Calling and Not Calling My Ex

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