The Stand Ins
September 9th 2008
Okkervil River, along with other musicians gracing our planet, are “Cro-Magnons on drugs with guitars”—so says Will Sheff, frontman behind the band. He also says that hybrid vehicles are yuppie porn, while much of the rest of the developed world simply considers them responsible. Given that I am a rational and emotional decision-maker, why would I choose such a troupe of barely-evolved and underdeveloped rapscallions to tickle my senses? The answer to this question is clear: I had purchased the disk before reading Under the Radar’s interview with Sheff. Since I bothered to buy the thing, I figured I owed it a listen. I enjoyed Black Sheep Boy enough, but the net effect was that I went into The Stand Ins with a pretty negative attitude.
Upon listening to the first real song on the album, Lost Coastlines, I thought my initial instinct was right, driving me deeper and almost irreparably wedged into that negative attitude. For example, one of many catchy lyrics is “Every night finds us rockin’ and rollin’ on waves wild and wide, well we have lost our way, nobody’s gonna say it out out loud” followed by la’s ad nauseum and some sappy horns. That said, this song may be the highlight of the Stand Ins.
The next song, Singer Songwriter, has a nice twangy guitar accompanied by Sheff’s scratchy singing, approaching a drawl at times. Unfortunately, the lyrics are very distracting. The sole purpose seems to be to make a mockery of a musician who has got it all: good fans, good music, a good family. But somehow this is still a bad person who deserves to be made fun of—you get the feeling that Sheff is trying to teach him a lesson. Not only is the subject of the song mocked, but the band also goes on to poke fun at fans wearing brand-name clothing. Sure, that’s funny. But folks, watch out—show up at an Okkervil River show wearing Chanel, and you may find yourself on the receiving end of their wrath, or maybe just the subject of their next album.
Starry Stairs is another song about a musician Pornstar who has seemingly got it made. Unfortunately for this musician, (s)he is unhappy and feels the need to apologize to his/her audience “if you don’t love me, I’m sorry.” I, for one, am happy to accept the apology, though I have a feeling it was facetious, at best (This song does boast a great lyric, “I’m alive, but a different kind of alive” which reminds me of my favorite line from Kafka’s Metamorphosis). Something had happened here: I enjoyed the pop sentiment created on The Stage Names, as it was often accompanied by errant and sometimes twangy instrumentation, cheesy oooohs, and a great Sheff yell here and there. Somehow this effect was not achieved on the Stand Ins.
In general, this album is well-made with music of an out-of-time and out-of-place style, and lyrics that make you want to commit suicide—and to no fault of your own. Find yourself singing along to the 50’s prom style song Pop Lie (the only things missing are a Pompadour hair style and the movie That Thing You Do), and you’ll get chided for being a fake and a liar. This is where you realize that the entire album is trying to teach not only the caricatures in the songs, but also you and the whole world a lesson. This theme goes hand-in-hand with the saccharine qualities of the music- sweet, but devoid of calories. The album appears to be a treatise on nothing. Maybe not nothing—on things that “bother” Sheff like designer brand clothing and successful musicians. I don’t suppose we’ll be seeing sweatshop labor topping his list any time soon.
Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See- 2002
Down the River of Golden Dreams- 2003
Black Sheep Boy- 2005
The Stage Names – 2007