Friday, August 24, 2007

The Stage Names by Okkervil River

There's something wonderfully reassuring about dudes whose songwriting chops are so terrific that it totally outweighs the fact that he's not all that much of a singer. Not only that, but he (or she) sings with such commendable vigour and enthusiasm that you just don't care anyway. Will Sheff, frontman for Texan troubadors Okkervil River, is most definitely one of those men. On nine numbers on their new release, The Stage Names, Sheff manages to pump

bellow and howl his way through all manner of emotions, volumes and tempos, each time attacking it with such fervour that you can't help but emote along with him, all the while tapping a foot or breathing a sigh.

What's also reassuring is bands like Okkervil River (and for that matter, fellow Texans Spoon, whose drummer Jim Eno produces here) that can produce solid, modestly ambitious middle-American rock without falling into cliche or bland reproduction. When Sheff self-references Okkervil River as a 'mid level band' on "Unless It's Kicks", one of many highlights, it is indicative of the lack of hubris surrounding the group, who have been around for so long without any kind of raging success to know their place in the world.

But that said, when it comes to sheer solidity of songwriting talent, it's hard to look past these guys. They don't reinvent the wheel - they don't want to - but they rarely, if ever, fail to come out with a hook-laden piece of pop magic, be it "You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man", with it's rollicking downtempo, late-night barfly rhythm, or any of the numerous gorgeous, introspective, stripped back pieces, foremost of which is the beautiful "Title Track", which demonstrates the band's confidence by allowing Sheff's vocals to rest delicately over a gently strummed guitar, before the rest of the band jump in on a full-bodied (in the most late-night red wine sense) chorus.
Another one of 2007's essential albums has come out, replete with fully formed characters, struggling through life in a world that doesn't quite seem to give a shit, and who always remain accessible enough for the listener to care more. Okkervil River have proven - again, as if they needed to - that they are among the best in the world at producing sad, serious and pretty rock music. A pearler.
4 1/2 stars


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