Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy was one of the most acclaimed releases of 2005. "Wordy and dense, prone to murder ballads, full of soft strings and Wurlitzers...both violent and bookish; it's a striking, woebegone work that...plays out like the strangest Cocteau movie you've probably never seen," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Allison Steward. Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times that "Will Sheff, leader of the Austin indie-rock band Okkervil River, writes like a novelist." Pitchfork's Stephen Deusner added, "like all good storytellers, Sheff is interested in conflict...and he has the uncommon and perhaps unenviable gifts for speaking fluently through his misery-heavy characters." This underdog of a record even managed to come to the attention of rock icon Lou Reed, who on the MTV Video Music Awards and in the Denver Post pronounced Okkervil River one of his favorite contemporary bands.
With their newest release, The Stage Names, Okkervil River dynamite the walls of Black Sheep Boy's gothic, moss-walled castle from the inside to let in the glaring sun. Where Black Sheep Boy presented a fairytale of dark babbling streams and high distant towers, The Stage Names ¨takes place in an unmistakably modern world, where snowy televisions blast into cheap hotels the spectral images of soap stars endlessly betraying each other, where losers in late-night bars languish to the beat of their favorite songs, where broken-down actresses place their final cell calls from lonely mansions high in the hills. Riddled with characters real and fake, with true-life biography and brazenly fabricated autobiography, with the relics of high culture and the crumpled-up trash of low culture, The Stage Names is a cinemascopic take on the meaning of entertainment.
And, crucially, it entertains. Reverberant with echoes of Motown snap and girl-group pop, redolent with ripe whiffs of dirty rock 'n' roll, shining with the shimmy of Bo Diddley, with the shimmer of the Velvets, with the swagger of the Faces, and with a glittery sprinkling of cheap perfume over the top of it all to disguise the stink, The Stage Names is a relentlessly-paced and ruthlessly thrilling journey.
Their fourth full-length may also be Okkervil River's most conceptually gnarled work to date, as frontman Will Sheff's intricately detailed lyrics leap from the ornate to the blunt, encompass philosophical inquiries and goofily playful riffing, invite the listener into confidence only to con them. With a voice both poetic and toughly slangy, these songs are equal parts high-concept filigree and low, street-level kicks; they're both artistically ambitious and refreshingly unpretentious.
Written on the beds and beat-up couches of hotels, guest-rooms, and fourth-floor walk-ups during the itinerant Sheff's travels around the United States and tenure in New York City, recorded in Austin with longtime Okkervil River co-producer Brian Beattie, and mixed at Jim Eno of Spoon's Public Hi-Fi studio, The Stage Names eschews outsider guests to focus on the core lineup of a backing band made tight and road-weary in rock clubs around the world. These songs give members of this usually shambolic troupe (keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, drummer Travis Nelsen, electric guitarist Brian Cassidy, bassist Patrick Pestorius, and coronet player Scott Brackett) the occasion to turn in bravura performances as Sheff's distinctively heated vocals, never more assured or in control, sail on top of them. The music soars, the lyrics cut, chaos is skirted, mystery is courted, and it all looks easy. This is the sound of a band at the height of their powers, effortlessly making good on their earlier promise long after the point where they remember or care that they even made that promise in the first place.