In a recent interview on Pitchfork, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear remarked about how we can fall into the habit of downloading a bunch of music and not giving most of it a full chance if it doesn't catch us right away. This is as opposed to when we were younger and/or in the pre-Internet days, when we only had access to one album at a time since it's all we could afford. This caused "...[a] really cool thing...where you would be forced to only have that album because you couldn't just download a million more, and you may not have liked every song on it, but then as you started listening to it more and more you'd be like, 'Oh wait, I do like track nine.' You lived with an album, and that doesn't happen as much anymore."
Well, this is something I always think about when I'm going through my iTunes library to trim the fat of albums that I downloaded or borrowed from the local library but never got into. Certainly many albums will never click with you no matter how much you listen to them, but there are those that require some 'living with.' I kind of get the impression that this's the case for most people with Okkervil River. I know it was for me because The Stage Names didn't strike my fancy when I first downloaded it. There just didn't seem to be enough going on: it sounded too classicist and simple, I suppose is how I might've phrased it at the time. But then a friend made a mix CD for me with a single by Okkervil River called 'The President's Dead' and I wound up buying The Stage Names to force myself to give the band another chance.
Ironically I think it's the band's classicism and simplicity that grabbed me on subsequent listens. It's pretty telling that Lou Reed is a fan of the band since Okkervil River's sound is very much a Loaded-era Velvet Underground style, though I would qualify this by saying they don't actually sound much like the Velvets and they aren't so much "classic rock" as "rock." As with many of the albums that I would consider the best of this decade (and The Stage Names belongs on that list), it's the songwriting that sets it apart. It may take you a couple listens to get past the fact that Okkervil River are "just" a rock band, but by that point the songs will have begun to sink in.
The album's best songs are probably the first and last: 'Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe' sets the tone for the dramatic, pseudo-conceptual album (loaded as it is with literary and cinematic allusion), complete with soaring choruses, while 'John Allyn Smith Sails' is a masterpiece of a closer that sneakily finishes up with one-half of a cover of 'Sloop John B.' In between is the surprisingly clever 'Plus Ones' (which mentions a raft of songs with numbers in their titles, such as '99 Luftballoons' and '8 Miles High') and the appropriately named 'Title Track', which is one of those swaggering penultimate songs that really demonstrate the band has confidence and a sense of grandeur up their sleeves.
I still haven't got around to The Stand Ins, this album's partner, but The Stage Names is excellent enough to stand on its own merits. It may not be the most inventive, experimental, fresh, or "hip" album of the 00s, but Okkervil River make simple, excellent rock with brains and balls. And sometimes, that's all you need.