The Stage Names

Okkervil River

Jagjaguwar, 2007

http://www.okkervilriver.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/14/2007

You know you’re drinking way too much coffee when all your new music comes not from music blogs or random iTunes excavations, but from Starbucks’ Song of the Day or barista recommendations.

Such is my latest find, Okkervil River, suggested to me along with the new Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino. With their fourth studio album, the Austin, Texas indie rockers combine majestically sweeping instrumentation with their now-trademark hyper-literate lyrics courtesy of frontman Will Sheff, who stakes his claim as one of the best songwriters in the business on this disc. Unfolding over barely 40 minutes, The Stage Names manages to cram volumes into just nine surprisingly compact songs, each shaded with the isolation and sheer, burning adventure of their never-ending years on the road touring.

The album launches off with “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe,” which depicts the disappointing disparity between film’s epic, poignant endings and contrived seamlessness and actual life. Sheff’s vocals overflow with emotion, culminating in an urgent wail as the song barrels towards its close, all mercurial stabs of guitar, pounding drums and wonderfully disillusioned lyrics (“When the air around your chair fills with heat, that’s the flames licking/Beneath the clock on the clean mantelpiece / it’s got a calm clicking / Like a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie.”) my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up, “Unless It’s Kicks” is an energetic, roots-rock number, brimming with driving riifs and destined to be classic lines like “What gives this mess some grace unless it's kicks, man / Unless it's fiction, unless it's sweat or it's songs…unless it’s lies or it’s love” that characterize the pure necessity of music in a single pithy and catchy chorus.

Brimming with raw, surprising imagery and threads of mandolins, woodblocks and cellos added to the core instruments, each song is an intricately crafted story grounded in clever reflections.

Take the ingenious “Plus One,” for example, which neatly blends in references to numerically titled tracks (“TVC15,” “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “99 Luftballons,” “96 Tears,”etc.), sidestepping the trap of triteness with a tongue-in-cheek pomposity. Or “Savannah Smiles,” a downbeat, subtle track in which Sheff embodies the father of Shannon Wilsey, who later became adult film star Savannah before committing suicide following a disfiguring car accident.

Finally, closer "John Allyn Smith Sails" is a brilliant retelling of poet John Berryman’s suicide; a sort of adaptation of the Beach Boys' “Sloop John B” with numerous allusions to Berryman’s poems woven in, this track also features some of the album’s best instrumentation, slow-burning and full of subtle flourishes.

You know you’ve got a great album on your hands when its only discernable flaw is ending too soon, and The Stage Names is one of those rare, thrilling and accessible gems -- easily a top contender for album of the year. Perfect music to drink a Pumpkin Spice Frappucino to, at any rate.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Jagjaguwar, and is used for informational purposes only.