Thursday, May 05, 2005

Okkervil River

I know better than to follow a good comic with a joke, so . . .

when I say the best album so far this year (at least until Tuesday, when Spoon's Gimme Fiction drops) is Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy, I'm not kidding. This is the Austin-based band's fourth full-length and--from what I've heard of its previous alt-countryish efforts--most interesting and ambitious by far.
More astute critics than I are giving it lots of love, so I'll try to be brief.

A concept album that's loosely based on 60s folky Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy," this amazing record lurks and confronts, sprawls and rocks. The Puck-like character of the black sheep boy slips in and out of the 11 tracks, alternately playing master of dark revenge fantasies in songs like "For Real" (a tune that makes the all-too-familiar loud/soft dynamic done to death by everyone from The Pixies to Fugazi to their more-dubious offspring sound fresh again) and patient, beseeching lover in the epic slow-burner "So Come Back, I Am Waiting."

"Black" is, on the surface, the album's catchiest, most upbeat number, with a sprightly, instantly hummable keyboard line. Upbeat until you read the lyrics and unearth a story of modern gothic proportions. The narrator, unable to reach a girlfriend haunted by her father's sexual abuse, imagines a confrontation:

And if I could tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws, and erase his name for good, don't you know that I would? Don't you realize that I wouldn't pause, that I could have somehow never let that happen? Or I'd call, some black midnight, fuck up his new life where they don't know what he did, tell his brand-new wife and his second kid.

Stunning as it is, this verbosity can very occasionally get in the way of the music. Particularly when Will Sheff's scruffy, warbling voice takes on the stilted phrasing favored by similarly intense and wordy songwriters (paging Mr. Oberst, Mr. Conor Oberst). But indie kids who were paying attention in class will also be reminded of another godhead artist. While Neutral Milk Hotel's
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea benefits from a more complex mythology and sonic palette, Black Sheep Boy's themes of loss and redemption, not to mention its unexpected orchestral pop moves, is well within that tradition. That's no mean feat and no accident. Besides being a talented musician/songwriter, Sheff's a rock critic who has penned one of the best tributes to Jeff Mangum's magnum opus I've ever read.

Sample mp3s from Black Sheep Boy (but seriously, go
buy the album):


A Stone

Also, Okkervil River has a rep as a ferocious live act. They play
Schubas in Chicago May 12th and 13th.

Briefly getting back to Spoon, if you pre-order their latest masterpiece
from Merge by midnight May 10, that fine label will enter you in a drawing to win a Britt Daniel-signed 7" of "I Turn My Camera On."


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