posted on August 22, 2008 19:00
A review of the album 'The Stand Ins' by Okkervil River
Review Snapshot:With their name lifted from a short story by a Russian writer and their albums to date smothered by literary references, there's no doubting Okkervil River aren't your average Texan band. On this their sixth album (not including last year's free, online only 'Golden Opportunities') the band take a side-step rather than the much anticipated giant stride both lyrically and musically.
The Cluas Verdict? 7.5 out of 10
Okkervil River are one of those bands who've been in existence much longer than you've imagined, churning out some fine records before last year's critically acclaimed highpoint 'The Stage Names'. 2006 saw the release of 'Black Sheep Boy', a record which merged gothic menace with tantalising glimpses of melody ('A King And A Queen' for one), which was more fully explored on 'The Stage Names'.
If there was a more charming, melodic and better written pop song than 'Plus Ones' written last year, then please hum it to me. 'The Stage Names' worked mainly because it was a perfect fusion of OR's live sound and the aforementioned innate awareness of the need for a good tune.
'The Stand Ins' has widely been heralded as a companion piece to 'The Stage Names' and this, perhaps, is where the problems begin. For one, most of the songs were recorded during the same sessions that gave birth to 'The Stage Names', thus this latest release could well be seen as songs that weren't strong enough to make the initial cut. There are three pretty, but pretty inconsequential, instrumentals on here, none of which lasts more than one minute - which leaves you with eight new songs to admire.
The other issue is that bands need to evolve. It's the exciting part of waiting for the next album to be released - how will the intervening period change the sound or how will life alter the lyrical approach? Alas, you get none of that on 'The Stand Ins'. Ultimately, it is 'The Stage Names' Part II, which in itself is no bad thing.
'Lost Coastlines' has been floating around on blogland for some time now and the album version features vocalist Will Sheff sharing duties with one-time member Jonathan Meiburg (subsequently departed to become a full-time member of the quite wonderful Shearwater - check out 'Rook' from earlier this year). A rockabilly chug driving it from beginning to end, the song itself is engaging, but there's an arcane twist to Sheff's lyrics at times, an impenetrability - undoubtedly intentional - which leaves meaning almost always beyond the listener.
But what Okkervil River do best is write masterful pop songs - 'Singer Songwriter', 'Pop Lie' (surely a companion piece to 2007's 'Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe') and 'Starry Stairs'. The latter features a recurring theme in Sheff's lyrics - characters on the fringes, outsiders, although scarcely in a Kafkaesque sense: "And if you don't love me, I'm sorry".
Another of Sheff's recurring lyrical themes is entirely self-referential - his frequently self-deprecating analysis of life in a band, more closely seen on 'The Stage Names' but present here also on 'Singer Songwriter' and 'Pop Lie'. 'Blue Tulip' recalls 'Another Radio Song' from 'Black Sheep Boy' in spirit and sound - from an acoustic beginning it swells into a near 'A Day In The Life' crescendo, merely missing the na na na's at its end.
Ultimately this is a wonderful record by a band undoubtedly destined to make many more fine, and hopefully finer, records. But 'The Stand Ins' is a mere side-step for them, a wonderful stop-gap to maintain interest until they go off and make a brand new record to add to their already impressive canon. Here's to Sheff's mid-life crisis then.