Anytime a band takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya there is a slight aprehension about giving that tiny sliver of your heart over to them, especially when this is the first thing you know about the band long before the first note has ever dropped.
After spending the last two weeks with Austin-based band Okkervil River, I can easily say that their latest album The Stage Names is one of 2007’s finest records. In many ways the progeny of their name is befitting their writerly, lyrical songs, but in a far different way then say, The Decemberists. Led by Will Sheff, this seven-piece band, comes off as the musical equivelant of British author Nick Hornby as opposed to the Victorian preciousness of that other band. Okkervil River is at times humerous, devestatingly emotional, playful, in love with life even as it celebrates the tragic vagaries of it.
The Stage Names is a mid-tempo album of gorgeous rock tunes, the fluttering of brass or clarinet, even the occassional xylophone popping up in unexpected places. There is a winsomness, as if written by an old man, that permeates many of these songs including the playful “Plus One.” That song reworks the conventions of famous numerically titled things like “Eight Miles High” and my favorite childhood book “Seven Chinese Brothers.” In less capable hands a trick like that could come off as pedantic, but here it works and when the last line sinks in “let’s get lost and let them send out alarms . . . let’s make the world’s stupidest stand and truly mean it” it’s an observation that takes you back to when you were eight or nine years old, but it also serves to codify the record’s intention of reminding us that we are already living in the movie we wish our lives would be.
The characters permeating Sheff’s songs are all bruised romantics trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and keep plodding along, even after they should have given up. There’s a certain honor in that. Musically the band is interesting enough and plays off Sheff with enough gusto to make these guys a band worth following and investing your heart in. If for nothing else then they’ll make you want to become the reluctant hero or romantic lead of your own movie, you know the one that’s going on right now.
Song hightlights include, well, just about all of them. But personally, I love the Lou Reed-ish “Unless It’s Kicks,” the countrified rocker “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man,” the downbeat “A Girl in Port” and the coy reworking of The Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B” otherwise titled “John Allyn Smith Sails.”
Elsewhere: Daytrotter asserts that maybe we should consider Will Sheff as one of our hypothetical dinner guests, you know when that cliched question is asked of us, and I would tend to agree with Sean. He’d make an excellent dinner companion. Also, NPR has a recent live performance of the band and it’s very excellent. Okkervil River are just as good in concert as they are on record. Unfortunately, they’re touring in Europe and then Australia so we won’t get to see them Stateside anytime soon.
A few flotsam and jetsam for you this morning as well. Speaking of Nick Hornby, Believer Magazine, has an awesome sitdown with the author and David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. Also, this author must ask the question how the hell do I not have HBO for the fifth season, word is it’s as excellent as it’s ever been.
– Superbomb Scarlett Johansson loves Obama and after watching his speech after the Iowa Caucus last night I can say I love him too. Jesus, that guy can speak. I was ready to go out and change the world for him and it’s been awhile since I can say that about any politician. Even if I still don’t know what he stands for or would do as President, other than he represents change.
– If you’re curious about that new Terminator television show, Yahoo will be airing the pilot episode tonight beginning at 9 p.m. pacific time.