The Stand-Ins

A quick sigh of relief.  It’s good to be back here in the Bollocks! imaginary office, with my imaginary secretary doing… whatever it is he or she does… and no more K-ROQ interns lurking about. Yes, we’ve swept up the crushed Monster energy drink cans and bid fond farewell to Tad. I haven’t read his post yet, but I’ll get around to it later and then post what I think will be an eloquent refutation of his argument. Or something.

Let’s talk about Okkervil River, can we? Last year, the Austin, TX group put out The Stage Names last year and it was one of the best albums of 2007. The Stage Names, in my mind, solidified Will Sheff’s place among the excellent-but-shamefully-underappreciated pantheon of songwriters that includes Mr. Craig Finn and Mr. Matt Berninger (I realize I mention Finn and/or Berninger in every other review, but look: their awesomeness requires recognition. One morning at about 3AM, one of the 6 – on average- Bollocks! readers will wake up and exclaim, “Holy shit! I have to listen to Boxer or Stay Positive right now or I will just fucking die!”).

So now Okkervil River is back with the “sequel” (somewhat loosely) to The Stage Names, appropriately titled The Stand-Ins. Rumor has it that The Stage Names was originally supposed to be twice as long and was going to include the songs that make up The Stand-Ins, so it makes The Stand-Ins a somewhat-sequel. ‘Nuff said. The album starts with “The Stand-Ins, Pt.1”. It’s the first of three parts  to this non-song; the parts are more like instrumental interludes. Unfortunately, they add nothing to the album. Fortunately, they are exceedingly brief. So the first real song on The Stand-Ins is “Lost Coastlines,” which makes a pretty appropriate analogy between touring in a rock band and being lost at sea. Sheff sings, “we have lost our way, but no one will say it outright” and follows it with a whole string of La-la-la’s. Come to think of it, though I know Sheff didn’t intend it that way, the end of “Lost Coastlines” offers a pretty apt snapshot of our nation at the moment. Thanks, Will. “Lost Coastlines” features Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg whose monotonous voice actually makes an effective counterpoint to Sheff’s histrionics. This marks the first time Meiburg has been able to sing without boring me to the point of outrage.

The real treat, the song I think should’ve kicked off the whole album, though, is “Singer-Songwriter.” Yeah, it gets its Bob Dylan on kinda hard (that’s kinda the point), but it packs a helluva  a wallop: “You come from wealth/ yeah, you got wealth/ what a bitch they didn’t give you much else” goes the first chorus and the song fades out on “Our world is gonna change nothing.” It’s Sheff’s “Highway 61 Revisited” in the best possible way. It’s one of the best songs of the year.  The album never quite achieves the energy of “Singer-Songwriter” again, though “Pop Lie” tries mightily to do so (“He’s the liar who lied in his pop song/ and you’re lying when you sing along”). This is not to say the songs that make up The Stand-Ins are bad – I like this album more each time I listen to it – but part of the problem here is that you have three of the 11 songs that aren’t really songs at all and then you have roughly three or four uptempo songs and the rest are depressing, downtempo numbers. It’s a sequencing thing. At some point, I think I’m going to resequence (I love Winamp) The Stage Names with The Stand-Ins and patch together an even more stellar album because of it – and it will still end with “John Allyn Smith Sails,” because there are few better ways to end an album.

But I digress. The Stand-Ins features Sheff’s undeniably great and vivid storytelling, ruminations on the transitory nature of fame that never stray into the cliche traps that such subject matter often brings with it. Every song has at least one memorable line unachievable by, say, The Airborne Toxic Event. On “Blue Tulip,” the most depressing song on the album, Sheff sings, “They’re waiting/ to hate you/ so give them an excuse,” and later, on “On Tour With Zykos,” Sheff steers the song towards an obvious pop trope with “And they wish they were you/ like I wish you were mine” but then bails it out with “What a dumb thing to do.” Sheff is well-versed in all the pop archetypes and seems to relish the challenge of using pop music as a framework for calling out pop music on its worst excesses – though, on “Pop Lie,” he seems to think that pop will prevail in the end “I’m ashamed to admit that I cannot resist/ what I wish were the truth/ but it’s not/ and I truly believe we’re not strong/ and we’ll sing ’til our voices are gone/ and then sink ‘neath that manicured lawn.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though: if the radio thought pop music was Okkervil River and The New Pornographers and… well, some other awesome indie-pop bands, we’d all be a lot better off. So here’s hoping that, after stringing together two highly literate, lovely albums in two years, Sheff’s considerable well won’t run dry on us. We need smart writers in rock music, Mr. Sheff. Stick around.

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