The Stage Names
August 7th, 2007
This blog begins with Neutral Milk Hotel. A great friend of mine named Jim and I used to throw band names around while sitting in his south-side Chicago apartment. Drinking gimlets, we would discuss The Cure while listening to the Rapture. One of our favorite bands to which we’d drink and declare our unfailing fondness was Neutral Milk Hotel. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is an intrepid and devastatingly beautiful record. But alas it is not the album I am reviewing. But it was a few years ago, while speaking of this album that Jim told me to checkout this band Okkervil River. Instantly I was reminded of such names as Nickle Creek, Rascal Flats, etc. Jim is originally from Ohio, but he is a pretty smart and a very hip person. I knew he was not trying to turn me on to a country band.
Jim explained that I’d love Okkervil River even more than Neutral Milk; that they were similar in many ways. Of course I decided to give a listen. My conclusion was swiftly drawn, “What was he talking about? This band was nothing compared to Neutral Milk Hotel.” Even media sources like Pitchfork had suggested a likeness and superiority to Jeff Magnum’s final work. The comparison was so off in my mind that I unfortunately dropped Okkervil River right then and there. It would be six months before For Real would randomly surface on my media player, making me a believer in both the band and the album Black Sheep Boy.
I had no recollection of exactly who Okkervil were when I heard the song. In fact, when I checked my screen and saw the bands identity I was very surprised. Was I so concerned with what Okkervil River was not, that I overlooked what they were? Perhaps, but with a little time and distance I was converted in a big way. Even though there are in fact tones of country music weaved throughout the synthesizers and horns, Black Sheep Boy is phenomenal, with lyrics that are heavy and compelling; although not quite as startlingly poignant as In The Areoplane Over The Sea. This mix, along with the soulfully erratic and epic vocals of Will Sheff, provokes the listener to search for meaning in artful lyrics. It is emotional pop with tubas and tambourines. The Austin Texas based band’s newest effort The Stage Names continues this tradition.
The palm muted intro to Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe, before the snare snaps and the piano pounds, revisits the perfect anxiety created at the beginning of For Real from the previous disc. The vocals are very reminiscent of David Bowie hollering, “Hoo-hoo!” The lyrics do not disappoint either. “It’s just a house burning, but it’s not haunted. It was your heart hurting, but not for too long kid.” Unless It’s Kicks has a similar effect on my impulse to perform random acts of dancing. In fact this is a very key aspect to the album. It is consistent, with breaks and starts. The tempo is generally up and swinging until the second half of the record.
In comparison with Black Sheep Boy, the music seems more natural and a little less synthesized. Like Get Big off their previous record, Savannah Smiles and A Girl in Port really incorporate country aspects into the song style. While it is not done as effectively as Connor Oberst’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the country-folk elements of The Stage Names make Okkervil River very easy to approach. A Girl In Port could have been a Grateful Dead tune. I have listened to this record over and over again and I have yet to feel compelled to skip a track.
That having been said, The Stage Names does not have as much guts as Black Sheep Boy. The lyrics are complex and analyzable, but they are not delivered with as much punch. The Stage Names is only more introspective than Black Sheep if you define introspection as a quiet self reflection. Okkervil River is more biographical and utilizes more narrative for this record; it is more linear. It seems as though Black Sheep Boy has more reoccurring themes from song to song, and The Stage Names tells little stories about certain times and certain places and people. Black Sheep Boy is comparatively rawer. I think the refined nature of Okkervil’s new contribution to my record collection mutes my awe. The energy is there at the beginning of the record. But it then leads the listener on a journey inwards and with less tenacity. Black Sheep Boy similarly settles down after its monster track Black, but it does so while gripping my wrist.
Perhaps, after all, what I miss in The Stage Names is the very trait I lovingly embrace in Neutral Milk Hotel, an uncontrived emotional voice. Only in Our Life… can I really hear his spit. However, I don’t want to overstate any disappointment. Okkervil River’s new effort is superb. I’ll listen to it many more times. I would not be surprised if six months from now a random song plays and inspires me to return to this opinion.
Stars Too Small to Use 1999
Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See 2002
Down the River of Golden Dreams 2003
Black Sheep Boy 2005