Okkervil River – The Stage Names
Acquired: Love Garden, New, 2007
If Black Sheep Boy is where Okkervil River figured out the perfect formula for their music, The Stage Names is where they perfect it. This is a masterpiece. Will Sheff's songwriting is at its absolute best, the melodies are catchier, the textures richer, etc. Everything is improved. On top of that, it's loaded with pop culture and music references (which I love). Just look at “Plus Ones.” In anyone else's hands this might come off as hokey or perhaps snooty. Perhaps “look at how clever I am, I took a bunch of songs with numbers in the titles and added one.” It never seems like that, it feels really heartfelt, and it's at the same time amusing and very affecting. Like John Darnielle, Sheff is a master in the art of the story song. The songs here often focus on specific characters. Dudes in bands, poets, and porn stars. Whatever it may be, he's got a knack for writing from someone else's perspective. Actually, what I just said is a trait for any decent writer. He's someone who will probably end up publishing a novel or something, and I will gladly read it because he's excellent. Easily one of my top 5 favorite songwriters. This isn't a perfect record, not like Black Sheep Boy was, but it's a better record, if that makes any sense. The only flaw I find is “Savannah Smiles,” which is pretty much a drag and has never grown on me and I wish they'd replaced it with say, “On Tour With Zykos,” which was later released on The Stand Ins. That song achieves the really quiet sadness just right, where as “Savannah Smiles” is a song I usually skip. It's sappy, maudlin, and yeah, a drag mostly. But the rest of the songs make up for it and then some. It's emotionally devastating, powerful enough to make one weak at the knees. Where Black Sheep Boy stewed in misery, The Stage Names is rather defiant. The songs are almost always jaunty and upbeat and tend to occasionally kick a little ass in a classic rock and roll style. And when Sheff & Co. bring it down a notch, on tunes like “A Girl in Port” and “Title Track,” they totally kill it, bringing out the most powerful stuff of the record (with the exception of “Savannah Smiles”). I can't really tell if Okkervil River has plateaued yet. I keep thinking they have and they keep putting out better records.
Here's the really good video for "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe."