[NOTE: THIS IS BASED ON A PROMOTIONAL COPY THAT I FOUND IN THE USED SECTION AT A RECORD STORE.]
On Saturday, I walked into Plan 9 in Richmond with some friends after scarfing some rice bowl thing at Sticky Rice and I was immediately greeted with a $3 copy of XTC
's Drums And Wires
I wonder if I scared anybody.
After about fifteen minutes of everyone rummaging through the stock and finding something, I was growing frustrated because I couldn't decide on anything. And for kicks, I dove my hand into the "O" section of the used rock CDs. And lo, there was an Okkervil River
album! But... hold the phone...! It's... The Stand Ins
? That... doesn't come out for another month... holy shit. Holy Shit. HEY GUY STANDING NEXT TO ME, HOLY SHIT.
I wonder if I scared anybody.
Well... turns out that all that holy shitting was worth it. The Stand Ins is Okkervil's best album. All of the sudden, they have energy that only shone through on about two tracks per album. Their quiet songs are still quite moving and beautiful, but "Singer Songwriter
And what the fuck. "Pop Lie
," the only pop song that Will Sheff
will ever write, is fucking fantastic, even as he blasts pop musicians as liars and those that sing along with them are liars, too.
For some reason, I actually understand the lyrics, unlike 2007's The Stage Names
, which also serves as the prequel to The Stand Ins' sequel. That album also feels extraordinarily formulaic, as if the music didn't matter at all, as long as Sheff is spouting too-poetic-to-really-understand-unless-you-are-Okkervil-River lyrics. The Stand Ins finds Sheff writing as stand ins, rather than the headliners and road-weary bands. In other words, the lay-men of the music world.
It's bizarre enough that Okkervil River is playing as a stand-in, because they have never sounded this energetic. The band has returned to sounding organic, like on Down the River of Golden Dreams
, but they work together much more powerfully than anything before. They even seem to be having more fun, especially when they aren't constrained by Sheff's theatrics (Black Sheep Boy
, The Stage Names).
Sheff hasn't lost his thrill for the music theatre, however, and that's just fine. What he seems to have done is finally find the happy medium between art and fun. Tight and loose. Serious and raucous.
As my more musically-inclined friend points out, Sheff's B-string is off on "Singer Songwriter." But how would he, his band, the recording staff, and others not catch that if it weren't intentional? Given the theme of the song - songwriters that, alas, cannot pull from their boring, wealthy, tasteful lives and won't make a difference (perhaps autobiographical?) - and lines like "And this thing you once did might have dazzled the kids, but the kids, once grown up, are going to walk away." signal that this badly tuned string is a a clever device. Oh, the song sounds nice (it's fantastic), but something is wrong, making it ultimately flawed.
Both the Stage Names and the Stand Ins are flawed, but it's for purely artistic reasons. But those flaws make for better music on the whole on the latter. Both albums feature a song written about Shannon Wilsey (better know as the porn star Savannah), and both are rather sexual musically and lyrically (obviously, considering the subject). However, "Savannah Smiles
" (from Stage Names), is from her parents' point of view and "Starry Stairs
" is from a fan's. It may merely be personal preference, but I prefer the sexy guitar and horns of "Starry Stairs" over the cute mobile chirps.
And really, that's really what it may come down, to - personal preference. But maybe, for once, it's the stand-ins that should be in the spotlight.
Five stars out of five.