Monday, August 9, 2010

Okkervil River- Black Sheep Boy

It's strange and beautiful how music can affect you. Hearing the right song at the right time has made me do anything from miss the exit I was supposed to take, tell a complete stranger I think she's beautiful at a concert, or finally get up the wherewithal to shave and do some laundry during one of my depressive phases. Yet I generally find myself resistant to what Bradford Cox of Deerhunter once referred to as “emotionally manipulative” music. The sort of stuff that attempts, purposefully or otherwise, to make you feel something, whether it be despair, euphoria, anger, or what have you. For instance, I was listening to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea the other day at work, and for whatever reason the latter half of it really got to me; meanwhile, I'm dreading finally listening to the new Arcade Fire album because I find their albums draining (in a good way) due to their full force assault on my emotions.

Still, when I stumble on a band who have this kind of effect on me, it's always a welcome thing. The Stage Names was my introduction to Okkervil River, and it was one of the many excellent albums from 2007. My only foreknowledge of the band was a comment by Lou Reed at some kind of MTV awards show, where he was asked what modern bands he liked. I'm pretty sure it was around the time Black Sheep Boy came out, since this was definitely the album that made their name. Anyway, I can see Reed liking this band. There's a classicist, straight-ahead rock 'n roll feel to their music that would appeal to him. Even when they're bringing in stately horns ('A Kind And A Queen'), orchestra players ('In A Radio Song'), or going for acoustic stuff that wouldn't be out of place on a Mountain Goats album (the title track), you still feel that this band is not so much classic rock a la the Rolling Stones as they are a prefix-less version of rock. Akin to the third (and especially) fourth Velvet Underground albums, now that I think about it.

Okkervil River certainly aren't indie rock as most people would define it despite being on an indie label. Frontman Will Sheff even stated, during an interview with Relix about Pavement's reunion, that he actually hated them for awhile because of all the bands who sprung up in their wake, with lazy, sloppy music and mumbled, meaningless lyrics. Sheff, though, is the kind of guy who will put work and time into his albums. Hence Black Sheep Boy, a concept album inspired by a song of the same name by Tim Hardin. Rest assured that, whether or not you try to piece together the story of the monstrous, tragic lead character and the love triangle he becomes involved in (at least, that's what I think is going on), you can still enjoy this album. As someone who enjoyedThe Stage Names but just couldn't quite fall in love with it (I like to call this “four-and-a-half-star-syndrome”), Black Sheep Boy is concrete proof that Okkervil River are a great band. You may not dig Sheff's voice at first, but as with, say, Conor Oberst, once you see his full range and spellbinding power, you understand what a deliberate and emotionally affective weapon it is. During my first listen, when the band hit the peaks on the dramatic 'For Real', I was finally sold on his voice.

As for the album, when the band hit those final peaks on the epic 'So Come Back, I'm Waiting', and he belts out “I'm waiting/I snort and I stamp” and then quiets down for “I'm waiting, you know that I am/
calmly waiting to make you my lamb”, I was fully sold on it. The main reason I like this over The Stage Names is that there's a stronger sense of discovery and songwriting playfulness here. The mellow country-rock of 'A Song Of Our So-Called Friend' could pass for a Bonnie 'Prince' Billy cover, 'A Glow' has a waltz-like lilt and dreamy school dance guitars, and the Spoon-like grooves and falsetto backing vocals on 'The Latest Toughs' make it one of the album's most immediate thrills. This is an album brimming with ideas and hooks, with a palpable feeling of fun to back up and juxtapose with the heavy/dark subject matter and sometimes smarty-pants lyrics. Hands up, how many people had to look up what a “diapason” was?

As with a good number of things in life, Lou Reed was right about Okkervil River, too. They're one of the few indie bands that no genre or buzzwords stick to other than “rock.” Then let me say: Black Sheep Boy is an outstanding album from one of the best (extant) rock bands. Highly recommended.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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