Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Okkervil River

Becoming a follower of Okkervil River requires a discerning palate. The outfit out of Austin, Tex., featuring a rotating lineup orbiting around frontman Will Sheff, is capable of moments of astonishing achievement but also a bewildering lack of focus on occasion. The good nearly always outweighs the bad, and the great accomplishments are no less captivating. But every landmark like "Unless It's Kicks" – pure sonic cocaine off their 2007 release, The Stage Names – is weighted down by the glacial "Title Track," and the brilliant, but disturbing narrative of "Westfall" is immediately followed by the nearly unlistenable "Happy Hearts" (both off their 2002 debut, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See).

Such is the case with the groups' sixth effort, the long-awaited I Am Very Far, out today on Jagjaguwar Records (their most recent, The Stand Ins, came out in 2008). There are a solid handful of outstanding tracks, but also a not insignificant number of wayward affairs. The effort and riskiness of Sheff and his colleagues cannot be questioned; only their execution. The selection of the 11-track collection's first single – the thumping, but somehow breathless "Wake and Be Fine" – is fully in keeping with Sheff's best material. He churns out rapid-fire snippets of verse, including, "Carrying their years around / it's all been chasing down as we rot," and "Feelings on the creek, the killer's in the crowd / I'm coming apart," with like a well-trained policy debater, as he's obviously skipping syllables to boost his word efficiency. Even New Pornographers' frontman A.C. Newman - who contributed guest vocals on the track, as well as on appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (which also included house band The Roots' ?uestlove and Tuba Gooding Jr. – a must-see performance, where you can observe Newman routinely glancing at his lyrics sheet on his monitor) – noted in a Tweet his difficulty in keeping up with Sheff's manic rendering, despite his own band's proclivity for uptempo numbers. The only puzzle here is why the cut is buried so deep on the record, appearing as the penultimate offering.

Meanwhile, closer to the front of the album, "Rider" is nothing shy of frenetic, with its biting snare of drummer Cully Symington and punchy keyboards from Justin Sherburn enhance the number's urgency. Sheff's penchant for menacing, if not haunting lyrics is undiminished here, with accounts of the "blood red of flayed pigs," "staggering apes" and how the "golden shore groaned," as if Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" had been mugged in an alleyway by a drunken Ray Davies.

On a wholly different bent is the corresponding "Lay of the Last Survivor." Although far more gentle in its instrumental treatment – with Sherburn's piano adding a warming touch and lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo reversing Sheff's habit of truncating measures – the lyrics still point to a daughter's loss of her father. But it's undeniably beautiful, for while The Decemberists' Colin Meloy might best him on vocabulary and Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon can outflank him on authenticity, Sheff is singular is his phrasing and imagery, as evidenced here:

"A big sky, blue of a dead bachelor's tongue; a new bloom on the rose"

Or, "slobbering lovers, drink-clinking brothers; they don't have to tell us, because we know."

It's nearly tear-jerking just reading the stanzas, but its even more poignant via Sheff's delivery, and is a profound addition to the band's catalog.

Returning to the more briskly paced fare is "White Shadow Waltz," which sounds as if its the product of a blended portfolio of John Lennon and Brian Wilson, with Lennon's purposeful storyline combining alongside Wilson's studio wizardry. Symington fires out sporadic fills like anti-aircraft flack, which the rest of the outfit seems to be attempting to dodge through speed and intensity, providing Sheff just enough cover to transport his narrative safely to its drop zone. It only wants for a more dedicated chorus – in keeping with the leadoff track from The Stage Names, "Our Life is Not a Move, or Maybe."

A couple other of Sheff's concepts are digestible, but not so easily as the aforementioned cuts. In the leadoff slot, "The Valley" is sparse and disjointed, but not listless – in many ways born from the David Byrne tradition. "We Need a Myth" is far more haunting and hesitant, its ominous strings at the outset suggesting a plummet that never transpires, and a growing unease that goes unresolved, even as the track builds in organization and anticipation. And while it will never be formatted as easy listening, Sheff does succeed in advancing his concept via tone and tactics.

But, no matter how you slice them, a whole set of numbers are very rough sledding. "Piratess" could have fit on Steely Dan's obtuse Gaucho, while "Show Yourself" meanders around in the avant garde, but it might be fun sometime to line-up with the culminating scenes of 2001: A Space Odessey. "Your Past Life as a Blast" begins with some promise, with some hope Sheff might grab the reins at its midpoint and kickstart it with some drive, but it never comes. "Hanging From a Hit" just trudges along in soupy mire, and although "The Rise" gets some slack as the closing track and for Symington's saloon parlor piano, its not enough to overcome the 6-plus minutes of battling.

Come for: "Wake and Be Fine"
Stay for: "Rider"
You'll be surprised by: "Lay of the Last Survivor"

P.S. For a capsulized look at Sheff's distilled songwriting talent, check out (the non-specific) "The President's Dead." Hardly pausing for breather for a two good minutes, Sheff connects two distinct plot vehicles with astonishing deftness before band kicks in at the story's zenith. Incredible stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment