Album Reviews

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

(Jagjaguwar) UK release date: 20 October 2008

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins Austin’s Okkervil River are nothing if not ambitious. Their earlier album Black Sheep Boy had tracks that loosely looped themselves around a single song and came with an appendix of further material. Their last release, 2007’s The Stage Names – the album that put them on a lot of people’s musical radar – also had a strong sense of narrative and the band had enough material to toy with the idea of making it into a double album, but instead, a year later, they have released this, The Stand Ins, as a kind of companion piece, a sequel if you will (the cover art is even linked).

As on The Stage Names, the songs on this album explore celebrity and life on the road, but both albums are infinitely more subtle and inventive than that précis suggests: fame and fans and dented dreams. “Fuck long hours, sick with singing/sick with singing the same songs” main man Will Sheff spits at one point, railing against banality.

The first full track on the album, after a brief, pretty instrumental opener, is the forthcoming single Lost Coastlines. This sees Sheff dueting with rich-throated former band member Jonathan Meiburg (now in Shearwater). It’s an odd thing, quite beautiful, but with Sheff’s fondness for extended metaphor rather taking over, his wordiness working against him, something perhaps acknowledged by the la-la-la fade out.

Sheff understands the importance of words and practically every song has lyrics that demand to be quoted in big fat chunks. He has a poet’s ear for rhythm and stress and a novelist’s fondness for adopting personae: these are stories as much as songs. (And fortunately he is also blessed with a strong, raw voice capable of wringing every last measure of magic out of his lyrics).

Singer Songwriter describes a pampered musician character with “cuts by the Kinks on your speakers and Poe and Arnaud on your shelves”, concluding “you’ve got taste, what a waste that that’s all that you have.” Pop Lie speaks of “the liar who lied in his pop song.”

There’s a lot of bitterness here, frustration and confusion, but there’s also warmth. Calling And Not Calling My Ex is about a now-famous ex girlfriend who “commands a famous figure for every picture,” but it is poignant rather than angry and ends with the protagonist expressing regret yet wishing her well. The album’s final song Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979 is also rather glorious with vocals dipping and falling like waves.

Though it stands up well enough on its own The Stand Ins does feel like a follow-up, rather than something completely new and fresh and forward looking, and it is not as instantly gripping as The Stage Names, it takes longer to wind your way into your mind. But new material from this distinctive, exciting band is always welcome and this is no exception.

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More on Okkervil River
Okkervil River – In The Rainbow Rain
Okkervil River – Away
Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
Okkervil River @ Heaven, London
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far