For me, it's always easy to find something I like but hard to find something that completely devours me. Those are the bands that become part of your identity, that never leave your playlist, that you will listen to when you're old in a rocking chair with your grand children. If you find someone that hates them, your brain can't wrap around that possibility. You don't need to be in the mood to listen to them, you just do and it works. I've been blessed to find many - Cursive, Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Broken Social Scene - and every new album is like going home.
I need this every few months. I need to find songs to absolutely love, to sing every morning when I get up, and to fall asleep to every night. Music just isn't as sweet when something new and beautiful hasn't smacked in the face. A few years ago, when I was going through new music in one of these valleys, a band called Okkervil River took me to a peak.
It was the album, "Black Sheep Boy." It didn't happen from track one or two. Instead it was a slow build, a gathering of strength. The trumpets bled these beautiful notes and the vocals were a bare, beaming wound, but it was the writing that grabbed me. Reading the lyrics to their song can improve it tenfold. At my personal high point of the album, the angry-catchy "Black," you were unsettled as you delved into the words and story. That's one of the hallmarks of Okkervil River - they are a band that will unsettle the shit out of you if you let them. Plenty of bands make you happy, plenty more make you sad, and some entire genres are dedicated to scaring you or channeling your anger. There are a few bands that hit that subtle, delicate spot of unsettling. It's rare and real, and one of the few things that carries over into the way you live your life.
Intro aside, Okkervil River's latest offering, The Stand-Ins, has leaked. I will obviously buy it when it comes out proper, being a devoted fan and supporter of independent labels, but for now I will enjoy it in digital format. Much like the Bright Eyes thing from before, I take joy in writing track-by-track first impressions where I stretch those music review muscles. Describing music is a challenge - it's a test of articulation, knowledge and conveyance.
1. Stand Ins, One
A forty-eight second intro track. It starts off with strings and one of those warm electronic noises. You would think it was Sigur Ros. It's a suspenseful incline, like a drawing curtain, or something to set the scene.
2. Lost Coastlines
Guitar and banjo bounce along and Will Sheff hits the mic right away. The banjo is at a distance - hollow, reverberated. A danceable almost motown bass line kicks in, and we know we're in for something snappy. Hey - is that someone else singing or is Sheff lowering his voice for another verse? It might be Jonathan Meiburg/Doctor Shearwater. His style is a smooth coo, like an old jazz singer, and it's interesting to contrast. At about 1:20 a layer of distant frantic guitar strumming fills the air, but the bass is still the main player. I can really get into this, it's full of the type of melody that makes you want to sing along because it feels good coming out of your throat. It's almost an elegant song.
3. Singer Songwriter
The title makes me think this one is going to be meta. It's a rough acoustic beat, with some country/blues sauce on it, that makes you think it's Dylanesque until Sheff comes in with, "Your great grandfather was a great lawyer." Thirty seconds in and the song is way country, but accessible for pop fans. The electric guitar riff that just slides in on one note after every line is kind of annoying. This song would be so much better if that thing didn't sting you in the ear with regularity. The song's shape is very strict, kind of predictable, but it helps to fuel this "classic" feel. "Our world is gonna change nothing," he says. Weird wiped chimes play until...
4. Starry Stairs
Wait, these are familiar notes. This song was a bonus track from last year's album! Not much of a bonus anymore, but whatever. It's a really great song either way, although it benefits a lot once you've read about Shannon Wilsey, about whom the song is about. Sheff seems to enjoy namedropping/taking inspiration from obscure, forgotten, and altogether tragic pop culture figures as this and the last track will show you. He sings from her place of doom and exploitation, in dire need of perspective. "Here's goodbye / from the part that's staying behind / to the part that has to leave," he sings, and you can get an idea what that means in the life of a popular porn star. "She's not me." Surprisingly uptempo - I've come to realize that the band tends to disconnect the mood of the music with the mood of the words.
5. Blue Tulip
Acoustic guitar and a lot of echo means you are in for a quiet one. It's a song that drones the only way singer songwriters can: lethargic, stretched words, plodding pace. Chords are strummed with great big sweeps of the arm and left to stir the air. Sheff wails here, which is not uncommon, but he does so with long, drawn out breaths, no stopping for air, nope, none. It is decidedly full of rock ballad signifiers like oscillating organs and mid-tempo drumming. The ending is amazing. After this song-wide build, it caps off with this fantastic, channeled line: "With every single cell of me, I'm going to make you mean the words you sigh." And then, "You lie / Good bye."
6. Stand Ins, Two
This one is even shorter at half a minute. There is only one more stand-in track left and I'm wondering if they culminate into something. This one has more melody than the last one, but it doesn't set a mood or reveal anything.
7. Pop Lie
It rips with an uncharacteristic rock guitar riff, and the upbeat inertia keeps rolling. Aside from the voice, it doesn't even sound like Okkervil River. The voice itself takes on different kinds of tracking for different lines. Sometimes it drops out, sometimes it's like someone's waving a fishbowl in front of Will Sheff. These are weird metaphors, I know, and listening to the song won't even help you decode my rambling. It sounds like an overproduced version of some 1950s rock song. Its got hand claps and all I see are are kids in sweaters and poodle skirts dancing at diners. Then it gets all Spanish influenced for the last 30 seconds where everything drops out and an acoustic guitar tremolo fills your ear. Lyrically, it is not bad, and tells a story of the lies our idols sing of, and the false attachments we all unfortunately make to the people.
8. On Tour With Zykos
A delicate piano riff breaks the silence and Sheff's voice takes center stage. It's not over-the-top melancholy like Black Sheep Boy, but it's a beautiful, coasting piece of music. It's got the kind of introspective mood that makes this a good driving song. At its core it still seems like a solid love ballad, unrequited, but not cliche. "They wish they were you / Like I wish you were mine / what a dumb thing to do." It's the story of a groupie, or at least someone in a relationship with a touring musician, yet it's more about dissatisfaction with a whole host of things than it is about yearning. It's a great portrait that shows Sheff's penchant for writing fiction as song.
9. Calling and Not Calling My Ex
I always form expectations about how a song will sound like when I read a title and I am almost always wrong. This bounces right away, utilizing a piano and, uh, Christmas bells. The first verse appropriately works in a reference to Christmas Eve so the sleigh bell backing isn't so odd. There's a fascinating relationship story being told here, about the bitter ex of a now-famous jet setting model. The storytelling and the pangs of guilt calls to mind The Good Life's ... entire discography. Only in "vibe," a vague term I use to denote the way a song makes me feel. He's really rocking the simple internal rhymes here. It's a wonderful first person story that gets heart wrenching when it needs to and then draws back soon after. "Girl you won't wait for me in some secluded stand of trees, some Christmas Eve some God was kind enough to set aside" first, then "Although I'd love you to, I'm proud of you, God knows I'm feeling really stupid now / for ever having said good bye." That's an essay in and of itself. That's a solid internal monologue and having it as a piece of a verse is pretty damn impressive. "Go turn their heads, go knock them dead, go break their hearts," he says to the image on the TV, and it's hopeful yet melancholy, moving on and defeated.
10. Stand Ins, Three
It starts with a weird, distorted bass that drops out 7 seconds in, but these beautiful foreboding strings, straight out of some science fiction movie soundtrack, fill the space. Some theremin sounding alien noise hangs out, and again, this is like something some post-rock band would totally jam out. I'd like to see whoever arranged these to do full length tracks.
11. Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979
Seamless segue. Mouthful, the way I imagine Will Sheff would name a poem. Bruce Wayne Campbell is, apparently, a homosexual pop star with a huge marketing machine behind him that never produced the success they hoped for. Will Sheff invokes the real names of tragic figures like John Berryman all the time in the last two albums. It all has implications - especially with the concepts of "stage names" and "stand ins" - but I am not confident enough to claim that I completely get it.
Oh, the song. Well, it's almost mournful. The musical bottom drops out in 2:44 and then it grabs a second win at 3:05, and I am beggin' for a lyric sheet here. "But he knows and we know it isn't coming down / He knows we know we'll fly so far / Til finally stars hold him and all around / Til he forgets the ground / Til he forgets the crawling way real people sometimes are." There's a sickness of small mediocre fame or performance here, which is a fitting end, but it's not played for melancholy. He's seems to nail down a cinematic, grand and sweeping view of inner tragedy, turning inner drama into outer opera. It ends on a decline that could easily be "The Stand-Ins, Four."
Overall, it occurs to me that this album is more than a B-sides compilation of The Stage Names, but it still fits very much within that space. The songs revolve around the same concept and themes of fame and facades, but these seem to be better suited and more powerful songs. More interesting, more contrast with pop sounds, more of an exercise in empathy and myth.
I've got my ear against the screen
I'll feel your feelings crackling
For every single inch of me, I'm going to make you mean it
With every single cell of me, I'm going to make you mean the words you sigh