The sequel to 2007's critically acclaimed "The Stage Names", which Pitchfork praised as "one of the year's best", is part two of a staggered double album, picking up where part one left off, but delving deeper into the story and theme of "The Stage Names".
Review by James Christopher Monger
Okkervil River's 2007 almost-masterpiece Stage Names presented a vivid dissection of the "Silver Screen," both literally and metaphorically as filtered through the crowded, cerebral library of bandleader (and one-time film student) Will Sheff. 2008's Stand Ins doesn't just complement Stage Names (which was originally conceived as a two-disc package), it completes it. Opening with the first of three mini-instrumentals that sound like a mash-up of Bill Frisell's Nashville and Radiohead's Kid A, Stand Ins revisits many of the central themes (loneliness, failure, hero worship, and broken love) that bounced around the set of Stage Names. Songs like "Lost Coastlines" (a duet with former member and current Shearwater main man Jonathan Meiburg), with its Motown bassline, copious "la, la, la's," and "Old West" horn section, "Blue Tulip" with its slow-burn build and explosive finale, and "Singer Songwriter" with its lament that "This thing you once did might have dazzled the kids/but the kids once grown up are going to walk away" are all instant Okkervil classics, but it's the nearly six-minute closer that seals the deal. Like "John Allyn Smith Sails," Stage Names' ode to doomed poet John Berryman, "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979," a tribute to gay glam rock icon Jobriath, who was adored and then devoured by the press in the mid-'70s before dying of AIDS in 1983 a poor lounge act, presents its subject as tragic, misunderstood, and buried beneath the weight of his accomplishments. It's a subject that suits Sheff's writing style well, flowing out like an Americana version of something off of Scott Walker's self-penned fourth album. Stand Ins glows a little less bright than its predecessor, but it shines nonetheless. There may be nothing as immediately satisfying as "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe," "Plus Ones," or "Girl in Port," but it offers a more streamlined ride than Stage Names, wasting very little time trying to squeeze every last bit of scarlet pulp from the blood orange.
The Stand Ins
Combined Rating: 76%
It wasn’t without some trepidation that I agreed to review the new Okkervil River jam. The last time I ventured down this fraught path it was made clear to me through a number of impassioned and informative missives that I had utterly failed to make my point. So I guess I’ll attempt once again, futilely and belatedly, to get this across: I don’t hate The Stage Names (2007). I don’t even dislike The Stage Names. I kinda like The Stage Names.
I think The Stage Names is an ultra-dense, scholarly, narrative appraisal of the state of the art. I just think it came out a little uneven is all. Come right the fuck on, is any one of you seriously going to contend that “Plus Ones” had any merit outside of its own silly lyrical exercise? Hold up, that’s rhetorical. I know you’re seriously going to contend that. You’ve done it already.
Even more intimidating was the moment when—staring into that hipster skull’s orbital sockets—I realized that by all accounts The Stand Ins is a de facto sequel to The Stage Names. I’m positive that it’s not unintentional that both albums focus, in title and in theme, on the vacant trickeries of performance art (“Our Lives Are Not a Movie, Or Maybe,” “Pop Lie”) and the sloppy layers of experience encapsulated in artistic output (“A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” “Singer Songwriter”). Also, both have album covers that appear very much like tarot cards.
I digress. The point is that I was worried, to be frank, that Sheff’s forays into complex lyrical experimentalism would continue to prove a tad unwieldy. If so, should I rave anyway to avoid the hate-spew? Should I waffle even more than my abstruse, griddle-ready previous Okkervil review? Would that compromise further my already laughable journalistic credibility? Let me thank Mr. Sheff here publicly for sparing me this dilemma. The Stand Ins is (honestly) great!
Simply put, this album delivers on the tantalizing promise of its opening song in a way that The Stage Names just didn’t. “Lost Coastlines” sets a noticeably lighter tone than “Our Life Is Not a Movie,” but still manages to impress in its ingenuity and scope, Jonathan Meiburg’s hilariously debonair lounge act baritone playing the suave foil to Sheff’s trademark tortured wail, while the band manages to somehow rock back and forth between country-tinged adventure ballad and maritime shanty. “Starry Stairs” and “Singer Songwriter” cover similar territory as much of the material on The Stage Names , but their lyrics lack the dizzying academic structure of their counterparts on that album.
Many of the thematic pieces on The Stage Names are framed narratives, stories within stories, from which Sheff stood removed pointing out the places between the layers where things break down. But he wasn’t just a spectator: at points he seemed bothered by the lack of overlap between artist and audience in how they experience music. In the last verse of “Unless It’s Kicks” he laments, “What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock n’ roll fan / Floating up from the stands / With her heart opened up / I wanna tell her, ‘Your love is not lost / My heart is still crossed.‘” This is very astute, very meta, and somewhat disheartening, yes, but it seemed to leave little room for his wonderful cleverness or his wicked turns of phrase.
The Stand Ins comprises a more fluid, more fun, and ultimately more satisfying effort because Sheff has taken a step back from asking big important questions about music and moved back toward making it. He’s still interested in the meta issues, but he’s content to imply them within a catchy verse instead of allowing them to predominate. The end of “Pop Lie” reflects this shift when he stops killing himself to connect and admits to that same rock n’ roll fan that she might just want to cool out and enjoy pop for what it is: “This is respectfully dedicated / To the woman who concentrated / All of her love to find / That she’d wasted it all / The liar who lied in this song.” Sheff is no longer bummed out by his own dismal insights, and the more engaged he is the more his lyrics insinuate themselves into the rhythms and melodies in that tumbling, confident way that earmarks Okkervil River’s best and most enjoyable work.
Such watershed moments are abundant on The Stand Ins. There’s the snippy, comic genealogy at the beginning of “Singer Songwriter,” the jabs from the horn section that keep “Starry Stairs” from turning morose, the synth patches that slither ingeniously through the mix in “Pop Lie,” the festive, jingly piano line buoying the chorus of “Calling And Not Calling My Ex.” I could go on. These are small changes, tweaks and shifts and nudges mostly, but the aggregate effect accounts for the subtle gulf between this year’s stellar record and last year’s near miss.
So yeah, if these two albums had been released as a unified double-disc album as was originally intended I would have been forced to put it solidly among last year’s best on the strength of its overall accomplishment. But it wasn’t. They were released as distinct (though interrelated) albums, and this one is better. So I can’t help feeling a tad vindicated in holding out for just a little bit more from this band, since they were evidently capable of delivering it. Because, you know, here it is. I’m not asking anyone for an apology, but can you guys stop yelling at me now?
19 September 2008
The Stand Ins
Life was a crummy movie on Okkervil River's breakthrough album, The Stage Names. On The Stand Ins, it's a lousy rock show. As the interchangeable titles and puzzle-piece album covers imply, this new record is an extension of its predecessor, a further untangling of themes and ideas about music, art, celebrity, love, and the folly of it all. The Stand Ins doesn't quite match the gusto and brainy emotionalism of The Stage Names but it exceeds its bleakness. Pop songs lie, tortured singer-songwriters are wealthy narcissists, groupies have regrets, music scenes wither, nothing changes. Rock promises redemption but delivers only destruction, or at best, cultish relative obscurity. Okkervil River are the anti-Hold Steady. They should tour together.
At first listen, the main difference between The Stand Ins and The Stage Names is that Okkervil's latest lacks the sense of surprise. The band's 2005 record Black Sheep Boy came out of nowhere, a thematic and musical step forward after two strong earlier albums, and The Stage Names revealed a tight, resourceful band who played with enough force to redeem leader Will Sheff's doomed characters. The Stand Ins continues that ambitious musical development, further roughing up the group's sound while sharpening its attack to an even finer point, and refining some of their old tricks while introducing new ones (see: the country shuffle of "Singer Songwriter", Sheff's smooth croon on "Lost Coastlines", and the short orchestral interludes tying everything together like incidental film music.)
The Stand Ins begins with an orchestral prelude, before filling in the pages of Sheff's tattered songbook with "Lost Coastlines", whose boat metaphor and buoyant bassline hint at a connection with Stage Names closer "John Allyn Smith Sails". The song changes shape often, toggling between an acoustic jangle and a tense electric groove until it finally drifts out to sea on a sing-along of la la la's. Those syllables carry as much weight here as any other lyrics. It's a thrilling introduction, maybe even more apt than "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe".
Touring almost constantly since well before Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River have transformed into an urgent rock band that imbues Sheff's songs with as much energy and personality as he does. At times, The Stand Ins sounds like a bassist's album: Patrick Pestorius plays like he's quit the rhythm section, adding unexpectedly melodic riffs that lend subtle gradations of color to these compositions. It's his bopping theme that connects the dots on "Lost Coastlines" and "Calling and Not Calling My Ex". When "Singer Songwriter" threatens to topple under its top-heavy accusations, Brian Cassidy and the Wrens' Charles Bissell right the song with their determined roadhouse gallop and piercing guitar licks. Then the band does a 180 and follows it up with the soulful, horn-laden midtempo groove of "Starry Stairs" (which may or may not be a sequel to "Savannah Smiles") and the grandiose show-closer "Blue Tulip", which ends with a perfect Byrdsy guitar riff-- one of the album's best moments.
In short, the band complements and counterbalances Sheff's cerebral songwriting simply by rocking out. His braininess is perhaps his greatest asset, and he's become one of the best lyric-writers going in indie rock, with a dense and distinctive style that trades on wordplay and internal rhymes. Song for song, he can jerk a tear with a carefully observed detail or turn of phrase ("Blue Tulip" in particular is a backlash tragedy on a human scale), but it's the way those songs talk to one another that makes Okkeril River albums so durable and fascinating.
Sheff wants to look beyond common pop song notions to discover something truer and more essential, no matter how disillusioning it may be, which is the central, enthralling contradiction for Okkervil River: Even as they ruthlessly deconstruct pop music, they make great pop music. The darker Sheff gets, the more honest he sounds and the more absorbing the song. By that equation, the stand-out on The Stand Ins is "Pop Lie", an exquisitely bleak dismantling of singer-songwriter pretensions. The pop singer lies in his songs, "and you're lying when you sing along!" (Hey, Hold Steady...) It's not hard to imagine a venue full of excited fans singing along, although it's difficult to determine whether he would view their participation as a bitter irony or a sincerely funny cosmic joke. Or if he would just smile and enjoy the moment, knowing that any listener can take that pop lie and make it true.
- Stephen M. Deusner, September 8, 2008