I got a chance to see Okkervil River last year during the tour for The Stage Names. It was in a dingy club and there may have been a little over than a hundred patrons there that evening.
“We’re starting off with our best foot forward, ladies and gentlemen.”
And with that proclamation, Will Sheff led the band off into a great rendition of “Plus Ones.” Throughout the evening Sheff strummed away on a ratty acoustic guitar and looked every bit the tortured artist that The Stage Names and its more recent companion album The Stand Ins lyrically alludes to.
Those in attendance dutifully sang along and, I must confess, it was one of the most profound live shows that I had seen in a long time.
But Sheff himself sees something else in this participation. Since he’s a major part of the band’s creative process, he knows the ratio of truth-to-bullshit. While he could easily parlay the public affection into enhancing his ego, he dismantles it. On “Pop Lie,” one of several songs on The Stand Ins that goes out of its way to dismantle the very idea of hero worship, Sheff admits that everything is “calculated to make you sing along” and, because he lied when creating it, “you’re lying when you sing along.”
Knowing this now, does it make my own experience less profound? Not really. Rock itself is built upon lies, exaggerations and bullshit. Did you really think that Willie Dixon, a balding black man topping the scales over a deuce-and-a-half, really slept with all those women he wrote about? [Yes, actually. -ed.]
In addition to alluding to his own art of deception, Sheff chooses two subjects, porn actress Savannah and glam-rocker Jobriath, as key illustrations. “Starry Stairs” documents the adult film star’s decent into depression, a condition that would eventually cause her to take her own life. The idea of that industry’s illusion is notorious, so Sheff takes a regular routine most actors in the business must succumb to…an AIDS test…before they are allowed on the set. “They asked for blood / What do you think this woman’s made of? / I stuck a small, thin pin in my thumb / They dropped a low, long line to be crossed / And I crossed it.” His eye for detail, focusing on this requirement of truth before allowing the star to essentially lie on camera, is what makes these character studies so effective.
“Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel 1979″ shows the man, better known as Jobriath, at the bottom of his career. Five years prior, Jobriath’s picture was plastered on Times Square. By 1979, Campbell was singing cabaret songs in New York City, living paycheck to paycheck and finding happiness in a few drinks and a few intimate encounters.
“Fuck long hours sick with singing / Singing the same old songs in the bar” he laments, considering the days when the record company advance was still lining his pockets. After being groomed to become the next David Bowie, Jobriath was unceremoniously dropped by his label and played to continually diminishing returns until he passed in 1983. While Morrissey has notoriously championed Jobriath’s credibility as an unsung hero, Sheff champions the performer after he’s fallen; the moment when he’s no longer part of a marketing lie, yet the truth of his reality has him longing for the return of that untruth.
Musically, The Stand Ins handles all of this melodrama and detailed narrative with the same painstaking arrangements. Pianos, horns, bells, banjos, organs…all are used to fastidious effect. This may be Will Sheff’s story arc, but it’s the band that allows all the drama to work.
The Stand Ins is billed as part two of last year’s The Stage Names and, according to accounts, the remnants of that album as it was originally intended to be a double-disc set. Okkervil River wisely voted against that idea, as well as a simultaneous release schedule. While the latest is not as jaw dropping as the latter…we’re now accustomed to the idea that this band can produce greatness…it’s nearly as flawless. To be fair, The Stage Names may have a slight edge on the sheer number of splendid songs (three of Stand Ins‘ eleven tracks are merely instrumental interludes) and there isn’t one track here that’s as awesome as “A Girl In Port” or “Plus Ones.”
But The Stand Ins does possess a better sense of continuity and just because it falls a few eyelashes shy of the previous album does not discount the fact that it is a major piece of work. And because both albums are of such remarkable caliber, it should place Okkervil River as one of America’s most vital bands performing today.
Even if Will Sheff is pulling our leg every step of the way.
Trailer: The Stand Ins
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