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Monday, August 06, 2007

Okkervil River: "The Stage Names"

One of the great joys of being a music fan is being able to hear the progression of a band or artist. Many bands continually redefine their sounds. Some get progressively worse, others better. Okkervil River is a band that consistently improves. With each album that they put out, this great band from New Hampshire via Austin strengthens their sound and finds new ways to impress their audience. Like their previous releases, "The Stage Names" is influenced by several genres without fully committing to a single style. Sometimes folky, sometimes rocky, sometimes emo, sometimes poppy; Okkervil River is always worth listening too!

Will Sheff's emotionally wrought wails and painfully insightful lyrics begin the album off on "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe." The song is about how everyday life is nowhere as exciting (or contrived) as a major movie, yet the song itself is more exciting than most. You can almost imagine the band playing this song live, flailing their bodies about with all the energy that they can muster. "Unless It Kicks" keeps the energy from the opening track, but channels it into a more traditional rock sound. It continually builds throughout, before finally climaxing at around 3:35 with the band rocking out as hard as they ever do!

Though the music itself is brilliant throughout "The Stage Names," it is Will Sheff's songwriting skills that have impressed me most about the album. Every song gives the impression that Sheff spent hours slaving over each song, writing intricate stories and reflections. Take, for example, the clever, yet brilliant, "Plus Ones" in which Sheff weaves the titles of songs with numbers into the lyrics (adding 1 to the original). When he sings "No one wants to hear about your 97th tear" it's a direct reference to the classic song "96 tears" by ? and the Mysterians. When he sings "51st way to leave your lover, admittedly it doesn't seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others," he's referencing "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" by Paul Simon. While it's impressive that he could even weave so many song titles into the lyrics, it's even more impressive that the song itself is more than just a catchy gimmick but an extremely well-written piece of music.

Though "The Stage Names" is an absolute blast to listen to when the band is playing fast, energetic songs, it's when they calm things down that Okkervil River truly shines. On the stunning, "A Girl In Port," Sheff sings "These several years out on the sea made me empty, poor, and clear...pour yourself into me" over a shamelessly country arrangement. Soon after the song climaxes with a full brass section and guitar solo that is just as beautiful as it is entertaining. The title track, cleverly titled "Title Track," features minimal instrumentation from the band and only utilizes their talents when it's absolutely necessary. Sheff sings over the ambient guitars, saying, "The break dancers all broken down in their beds, are now intreveniously fed from a bag hanging over their heads." Again, his lyricism is unparalleled here, and it's especially apparent due to the lack of distraction from the rest of the band. The album wraps up with "John Allyn Smith Sails," in which Sheff asserts, "This is the worst trip I've ever been on" before following it with "I wanna go home." Nice.

In the end, "The Stage Names" is yet another fantastic album from Okkervil River. I had my doubts that the band would be able to top 2005's "Black Sheep Boy," but I can say with no doubt that this one tops it in almost every way. It's energetic moments are more powerful, and it's soft, reflective songs are more poignant. Simply put, "The Stage Names" is Okkervil River's best album to date and much more accessible than their previous releases. I would've liked for the album to be a song or two longer, but I'm still thrilled with what is presented here. If you're a fan of Okkervil River (which you totally should be), you absolutely need to hear "The Stage Names!" It will not be easily forgotten.

Recommended for fans of Okkervil River, The Honorary Title, and Two Gallants.

Key Tracks:
1. "Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe"
2. "Unless It Kicks"
3. "Plus Ones"
4. "A Girl In Port"
5. "Title Track"

8 out of 10 Stars

1 comment:

A Medium said...

well, I must check this out as well. Nice review.