Monday, September 8, 2008

Okkervil River
The Stand Ins
Rating: On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being Astral Weeks and 1 being R.E.M.'s Monster), I give this record an Achtung Baby.

The Stand Ins
by Okkervil River is not a b-side collection to last year’s The Stage Names. Rather, it’s more of a dizygotic twin that continues the story of the more seedy side of fame. At first glance, the triumphs and failures of artists, narcissists, groupies, pop stars, et al, appear to be rather inconsequential when juxtaposed against the great, grand scheme. However, Okkervil River continues to demonstrate that there is a worthy story here; and that’s once the lights are dimmed and the makeup is washed off, a human element emerges that is not only interesting but also nearly universally relatable.

Is this album better than The Stage Names? Not to betray the intended purpose laid out below, but I don’t know, honestly. The novelty of the theme obviously isn’t as strong as it was on its predecessor, but the songs are just as fun and cohesively written. It’s separated into three parts, distinguishable by the tracks “Stand Ins, One,” “Stand Ins, Two,” and “Stand Ins, Three”; all instrumentals, which serve as nice intros and interludes but that’s about it.

After “Stands Ins, One”, the album opens up with “Lost Coastlines” which is a nice send-off to Jonathan Meiberg as he and Will Sheff share a duet. In fact, if I had to take a guess, I bet after they laid the track down and listened to it in the studio, Meiberg turned to Sheff and said, “Wait, tell me again why you’re the lead singer?” and then packed his bags and hit the road with Shearwater. I’m kidding, of course. We all know Sheff is the lead singer because he’s one of the best songwriters alive, and his imperfect voice is, in turn, perfect for telling the stories of black sheep and (sometimes) disgraced artists dealing with mild doses of fame. And “Lost Coastlines” certainly picks up where the last record left with a stripped down rock piece and Sheff singing “And every night finds us rocking and rolling on waves wild and wide/Well, we have lost our way, no one’s gonna say outright.” This navigates into a nearly two-and-half minute song-ending “la-la-la-la” chorus that is bolstered up by a Motown bass line and Travis Nelsen’s drumming. Any fan of The Stage Names will certainly feel at home with this song, and those yearning for the good old days of Down River of Golden Dreams, will have to hit “stop” and go find their copy of Down the River of Golden Dreams.

“Singer Songwriter” is the jewel of the album. Through periodic guitar licks, it’s another hole-in-the-wall-bar-like rocker that weaves a tale of a “cultured” lad whose most redeeming personal qualities lie in his artistic and musical preferences. When Sheff sings “You’ve got taste/What a waste that that’s all that you have”, I can’t help but think of everyone I’ve met that seeks validation through their finely displayed collection of Vonnegut books.

“Starry Stairs” or sometimes called “(Shannon Wilsey on the) Starry Stairs” and “Blue Tulip” tone down the rock show just a tad. The former has horns and the latter is a beautiful song seemingly about one of this country’s favorite pastimes: building someone up for the sake of being able to tear them down. The song starts off with Sheff warning, “They’re waiting to hate you, so give them an excuse.” I’m not sure if anticipation of seeing a song live has any relevance in an album review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the urge I have to witness the band plod through this painfully quiet song in some dark, rock club while the crowd hangs on Sheff’s every word.

A slight pickup from where “Singer Songwriter” left off, the band continues the raucous mocking of the disingenuous pop star on “Pop Lie,” only this time not even the audience or listener is spared. “He’s the liar who lied in his pop song/And you’re lying when you sing along.” Hey, damn it, I’m just here to have a good time.

“On Tour With Zykos” is notable because few bands besides Okkervil River could write this song. No one does a better job of putting himself in someone else’s shoes for the sake of a good story than Sheff. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be that original of a story. As is the case with “Zykos”, Sheff takes on the role of a lonely, scorned, and disgruntled groupie who’s no longer willing to play the part. She has her own grandiose dreams that could perhaps help reciprocate the rock star’s love, but they typically take a backseat to lying on the couch and watching television. Sound familiar? Yeah, same here.

I mentioned the sharp contrasts between this record and some of Okkervil River’s earlier work like Down the River of Golden Dreams, yet there is something eerily familiar with “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” and “Song About a Star” from the aforementioned Golden Dreams. Although there’s a slight role reversal, the idea remains similar, and that’s of a person watching their ex on television shortly after receiving their first break, and the deconstruction of the two lives that were once interspersed and are now light years apart. Capturing the dynamic of how two people relate or envision each other has always been a strong suit of this band.

Whereas The Stage Names ended on a such a high note with the triumphant tragedy of “John Allyn Smith Sails”, The Stand Ins calls it a night with a bit more of a whimpering tale with “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979.” Aided by horns, the band stays on message and paints a picture of what is often left when mid-level fame begins to elude the mass-marketed pop star. And just because the end result isn’t often pretty, Okkervil River proves they can take any sad, pathetic story and make it beautiful once translated into song.



audrey said...

I think "Lost Coastlines" is the jewel. What a great fond farewell to Meiburg.

These boys make me think of dadaism, its art is anti-art. Put a toilet on a pedestal and put it in a museum and watch people gawk at it. While their music is hardly a ceramic bowl for shitting, there's an analogy to be drawn. Sheff mocks the very art to which he subscribes. Insight at it's best, thankfully not aesthetically paralyzing in the very least.

The Dong Machine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

you guys are pussies

Brian said...

Talking shit anonymously is for pussies.

Anonymous said...

is putting a name in the box not anonymous? Do you use your real name online? If so you truly are an idiot

Brian said...

Dear Anonymous,

Actually, putting a name in the box is not anonymous, even if the name I put in the box is not my real name. "Anonymous" literally means "without name," so even if I decided to name my online persona Flimsy McShitpants, I wouldn't be anonymous. See?

Incidentally, Brian is my real name that my parents gave to me when I was born. I use my real name because I have nothing to hide. You can click through to my profile should you desire to find out more. A word of warning: I am not an astronaut, as purported in my profile. I am, however, quite interested in space and space travel.

You can email me directly if you like, and we can discuss how big an idiot/pussy I am, how not smart you are, the upcoming vice-presidential debate, or anything you would like.

All best wishes,

Brian Herrmann

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