Saturday, September 9, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1674: Okkervil River

I feel like I got my first good night’s sleep in a week last night. I woke up at 10 a.m., rolled out of bed and took a leisurely shower. Looking out the window the world looked vibrant; full of colour and the promise of adventure. I should get a good night’s sleep more often.

Disc 1674 is…Away

Artist: Okkervil River

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover?  A beautiful piece of cover art. This art features a lot of birds. Maybe even a Hitchcockian number. Travel with care along this shoreline and consider an umbrella.

How I Came To Know It: I was already an avowed fan of Okkervil River when “Away” came out, so this was just me buying the new record and hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine full-length albums by Okkervil River. Of those, “Away” comes in ninth. Yes, it is last.

Rating: 2 stars

When Okkervil River’s Wil Sheff is at his best his records sound like the echoes of pure longing through an ancient cave complex filled with the wistful shadows of regret. When he is at his worst, he sounds like Eeyore’s favourite radio station. “Away” was more the latter.

I’ll admit I didn’t listen to this record in an environment conducive to its success. Okkervil River is a “sit in your living room” kind of band, and I took it out driving and later for a run. But I’ve done the same with albums more maudlin than this and they succeeded.

“Away” has all the hallmarks of what goes into a good Okkervil River record. It has the ghostly atmosphere, and Sheff’s aching warble is as interesting as ever. Sheff’s vocals are not pitch perfect, but they are incredibly distinctive and built to tell stories.

His stories often run on a bit longer than you might want in a pop song and on “Away” they meander more than usual. Only nine tracks take up almost a full 60 minutes of music, with half the songs clocking in at seven minutes or longer. Many outwore their welcome long before they were over.

Things start off on a relatively positive note. “Okkervil River RIP” has a pretty arrangement, layering a couple of guitars to set the tone and slowly introducing additional elements (bass, drum, and even organ) into a song that grows more complex and beautiful as it advances. The slow climb is one of the things that often draws me to the band.

A lot of the songs that followed had the same layering effect but felt busy – or worse – muddy. When I listen to Okkervil River I always brace myself for this soupy approach to sound, but on “Away” it doesn’t consistently come together. The band is as tight as ever, so that’s not what’s at issue. It is more that the songs themselves meander without a purpose. With Okkervil River you want all that time and musical development to eventually spill out into the sea. A lot of these songs just warble endlessly and leave you wondering what the point of it all was.

There are some high points on the record – just enough to catch my attention in a positive way. “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” is a beautiful and unexpected melody that isn’t ruined by the fact that Sheff is overly enamoured of the title phrase he’s created. It’s a good song, even if you can hear everyone smiling at their own invention.

But too often you get the moaning notes of “She Would Look For Me” hang-dogging its way through a tune. It doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go, but you can be certain its protagonist will be sighing heavily throughout the journey. It is all very Percy Shelley exclaiming “I fall on the thorns of life. I bleed!” Seriously Percy, tone it down and pull yourself together.

Many years ago I missed a chance to see Okkervil River when they opened for the Decemberists and I still regret not going. “Away” salves that disappointment a little bit by reminding me that these guys can really get their drone on, and that’s not what I look for in my music.

Best tracks: Okkervil River R.I.P., Comes Indiana Through the Smoke, Days Spent Floating (in the Halfbetween)

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