Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Okkervil River, Neko Case

This installment of New Music Tuesdays is perhaps the one I'm most excited about in this blog's three-plus year history. You see, around 2008, I had a musical re-awakening. Until that point, my interests in alternative and independent rock largely was a recirculating collection of groups from the 1990s – the heyday of alternative and grunge rock. And sure, groups like They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), Weezer (NMT) and Fountains of Wayne (NMT) were still delivering quality new material. But many others such as Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Smashing Pumpkins and many others that formed the core of my catalog had either disbanded or weren't producing the same quality of new material. That all changed when my brother made me listen to The Decemberists' The Crane Wife sometime around 2007 or 2008. Struck by songs like "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," "Shankhill Butchers" and "Sons & Daughters," I was immediately compelled to explore their larger oeuvre. I was disappointed I had missed out on so much of their work that matched so well with what I love about music: wit, uniqueness and creativity – elements I found lacking in what was offered to me by mainstream music media. So, I expanded my search and came across a series of acts and artists that I should have encountered much earlier. I was saddened to find I'd essentially missed the full arch of groups like Rilo Kiley (although their recent rarities collection, RKives (NMT), offered me a one-time penance in this space) and Essex Green. But I was emboldened to find bands like The Arcade Fire (NMT), The Hold Steady (NMT) and The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT) still contributing outstanding new records. And ultimately, a trio of artists formed the foundation of my contemporary understanding of music: The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), The New Pornographers (NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT). This week, new releases from the latter as well as Neko Case – a charter member of The New Pornographers – are sort of a reaffirmation of my ongoing quest for new music that I enjoy experiencing for my own gratification and also encouraging others to engage with via this blog. Therefore, on to the reviews...(note: since this post benefited from streaming previews from NPR's First Listen series, I've linked to those sources for each release given that individual track-by-track previews aren't available yet)

Okkervil River
New Release: The Silver Gymnasium
Release Date: Today (September 3, 2013)
Record Label: ATO Records
Sounds Like: The New Pornographers, The Decemberists
Location: Austin, Texas

To lay it plain, the direction of the seventh full-length release from Will Sheff's intelligently emotional sextet is like nothing you've heard before from the group. Sure, individual tracks will recall past gestures, and Sheff has delved into well-realized album concepts on numerous occasions in the past. But rarely have they come across as cohesively and consistently as on the 11 cuts found on The Silver Gymnasium. As Sheff's own voyage back to the place of his formative upbringing in the early-to-mid 1980s in Meridian, N.H., it marks a period of time that largely corresponds to the same era for your blogger. (Note: the band prepared an interesting assortment of mulit-media promotions and teasers for the record, such as an 80s-style video game, illustrated map of Meridian and song previews. You should check them out) While little of the narrative is overtly biographical, when considered in its whole, its an engaging and unique take on the growing awareness of the world during childhood, including friendship, trust, experiences and other foundational themes. The reason why the record is so distinct in the group's catalog dating back to 2002 is the fortunate avoidance of ethereal, avant-garde experimentation that Sheff used to like to scatter among more muscular, structured pieces on past records. This isn't to say there aren't slower, quieter numbers, but rather that the album's sweep is more measured in its scope. There's no pseudo electronica like "Piratess" of 2011's I Am Very Far or dull and drawling efforts like "Black Sheep Boy #4" off 2007's Black Sheep Boy – numbers you listen to once, click the unselect button on your permanent library and turn back to Sheff's still substantial output of intense lyricism matched with well-delivered indie rock instrumentation. On that latter point, you'll really notice the contributions of bassist Patrick Pestorius, who adds bounce and – dare we say – a bit of boggie to the bulk of the collection. In all, The Silver Gymnasium doesn't let you down, not even once. 

Come for: "Down Down the Deep River" (exceptionally poppy, great first single, albeit very long for a single at 6:32); Justin Sherburn delivers the sort of cheesy keyboards that defined Bruce Springsteen records in the mid-1980s, which is fitting for the time period Sheff is exploring here; the tale of paternal protection and support – a key experience of childhood – is well-explored here)
Stay for: "Where The Spirit Left Us" (sounds like most like the Okkervil River catalog, a melodic mix of "Calling and Not Calling My Ex" and "White Shadow Waltz;" Sheff's signature lyricism is on full display; the river-as-the-journey-metaphor returns again)
You'll be surprised by: "Lido Pier Suicide Car" (very nearly the one candidate for the Meh or Skip to next track selection due to the track's dreary first four minutes, but the about-face to mile-a-minute pop-rock shuffle at the 4:11 is, well, surprising) 
Solid efforts: "It Was My Season" (jaunty piano from Sherburn leads things off; provides the narrative stage-setting for the album's concept; background vocals and horns later on add to the number's punchy nature); "Pink Slips" (way back when, Okkervil River was essentially an alt-country act, this is kind of what that was like; surprisingly blue collar, like a nerdy Bob Seeger song: "show me my best memory, it's probably super-crappy"); "White" (defined by the rattling snare of drummer Cully Symington; it's always interesting when Sheff utilizes the lower register of his vocal range, which he does here in an account of changing seasons serving as a chronicle of various phases of life, growing in energy and emotion; delightfully short at 3:06); "Stay Young" (a new-wavy sound – largely provided by Pestorius' bouncy bass line and guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo's rubbery lead part – that wouldn't not have been out of place on fun.'s Some Nights (NMT)); "Walking Without Frankie" (could have also been the You'll be surprised by pick; again, Pestorius distinguishes himself here; great classic rock references with "it's a Stairway or a Slow Ride, its Rhiannon or a Landslide"); "All the Time, Every Day" (dig up "The Latest Toughs" off Black Sheep Boy and play this right after it; a fun chorus singalong); "Black Nemo" (ah, surely this will be one slow, throwaway track buried at the end of the record; hardly, it's rootsy Americana that could have been churned out recently by Dawes (NMT) or long before that, Jackson Browne; worth sticking around for and ends on a gentle note)
Meh: As I said above, "Lido Pier Suicide Car" could have ended up here, maybe you won't have the patience for the first four minutes
Skip to next track: I liked it all, a first for a full-length Okkervil River record

Neko Case
New Release: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (NPR First Listen)

Release Date: Today (September 3, 2013)
Record Label: ANTI- Records
Sounds Like: Laura Veirs (NMT), The New Pornographers
Location: Northeast Vermont

It is my view that Neko Case is simply the best vocalist in contemporary music. Little – if any – technology is ever needed to amplify or enhance the raw power of her singing. If you're familiar with The New Pornographers, you're aware of how essential that force is to driving A.C. Newman's (NMT) indie rock confections. On her solo work, Case works with a larger palate, essentially rooted in alt-country but ranging from blues to hard rock. Like Okkervil River, the record serves as her seventh full-length release, while her contributions to indie music – even beyond The New Pornographers – are substantial, ranging from her early years as the drummer for Cub (which They Might Be Giants fans will remember as the original composers of "New York City") to Camera Obscura (NMT) and Jakob Dylan (NMT), among countless others.

Come for: "Man" (everything you want from Neko Case: brash, assertive and smart; can be easy to focus on the unambiguous post-feminism while missing the driving rock foundation – her backing band is exceptional)
Stay for: "City Swans" (incredibly well-balanced; strains of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" inform the number's instrumental core)
You'll be surprised by: "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" (if this one doesn't make you tear up at least a little, you probably don't have a heart; Case is so bold and headstrong through the bulk of her work that her bearing witness to parental hostility [a la "What's The Matter Here" by the 10,000 Maniacs] is not exactly jarring, but certainly distinctive)
Solid efforts: "Wild Creatures" (a somewhat abrupt way to begin the record, but after settling in is reflective of the bulk of Case's solo material); "Night Still Comes" (in the hands of another performer, this might be a tad lethargic, but Case's vocal talents keep it afloat; "I revenge myself allover myself" is one of the album's signature lines); "I'm From Nowhere" (a rusty combination of blues and western, Case's own nod to the 80's pairs well with Sheff's work above; I love whenever Case uses the word "kid" in any song ever, including this one); "Bracing for Sunday" (hints of rockabilly, a black comedy tale of a "Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come;" jagged saxophones are reminiscent of old-school They Might Be Giants; don't miss "I only ever held one love, her name was Mary Anne / she died while having a child by her brother, he died because I murdered him"); "Afraid" (I would have loved this as a round, since it's a neat looping melody with great layered harmonies); "Local Girl" (would have been the most likely to appear on a New Pornographers release, although likely without the gospel choir background vocals); "Ragtime" (somewhat of a slow chugger at first, but the imagery is evocative and the chorus is pleasingly full of horns, reminiscent of The Decemberists "Valerie Plame")
Meh: "Calling Cards" (it's fine, but doesn't have the same degree of creativity or urgency that defines the rest of the album)    
Skip to next track: "Where Did I Leave That Fire" (begins with nearly a minute of avant garde filler, and then never really gets going from there)

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