Okkervil River

The Stage Names

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Okkervil River broke away from the crowded indie rock pack with 2005's superb Black Sheep Boy, a ragged but ornate barroom romp that drank its way to the top of countless year-end lists by finding that thin vein that separates triumph and desperation and hammering as many nails into it as they could in under 50 minutes. Fans used to Will Sheff's visceral, lo-fi caterwauls may be disappointed in the bruised and elegant Stage Names upon first listen, but further spins reveal BSB as more of a stepping-stone than a peak. "It's just a life story/so there's no climax," from the rousing opener "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe" sets the tone, and its floor tom gallop and volatile whoops sound like an unholy combination of My Aim Is True-era Elvis Costello and Transformer-era Lou Reed spilling out of an old player piano. Sheff has proven himself again and again to be a gifted wordsmith, and Stage Names features some of his finest parlor room romanticisms and slacker-poet observations to date. "Plus Ones," a studied rumination on some of popular music's most beloved numerically titled tracks ("96 Tears," "99 Luftballons," "Eight Miles High," "TVC 15," "7 Chinese Brothers," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" etc.) adds an unnecessary integer ("Not everyone's keen on lighting candle 17/The party's done/The cake's all gone/The plates are clean"), cleverly illuminating pop culture's insatiable thirst for sequels and remakes. It's a trick that could easily turn trite in less capable hands, but one of the band's many strengths is its ability to mirror Sheff with arrangements that match the earnestness, wickedness and occasional pomp of the lyrics. Those talents are used most effectively on two of the record's other highlights, the soft and broken "Girl in Port" and the alternately heartbreaking and hysterical "John Allyn Smith Sails," the latter of which chronicles the suicide of poet John Berryman and manages to integrate the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" so seamlessly that you'd swear it had never existed before. It's not all winsome ballads about backstage passes and gutter bound writers though, as Sheff and company open up the full sneer on "Unless It's Kicks," "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man" and "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene," making Stage Names less of a metaphor for the cinematic lives we wish we could have and more of a reminder that it's us who make the films. [The first 5,000 copies of Stage Names (the "deluxe" edition) came with a bonus disc featuring all of Sheff's demos for the record.]

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