Okkervil River's I am Very Far recalls Sufjan Stevens and reminds me why Irecommend the obscure
Although I get the chance to review CDs, I consider myself first and foremost a music fan. What gets me the most excited is hearing a relatively unknown artist or band that makes me want to recommend them to other fans. I get it wrong sometimes, and the artist turns out to be less compelling than I originally thought, but every once in a while, one of these personal favorites eventually finds the limelight.
Okkervil River is one such band that I’ve been recommending for years, but I’m under no delusion that this Austin-based group is meant for mainstream success. The compositions of singer/songwriter/band leader Will Sheff are a bit too unkempt for the masses, exposing messy emotions and human frailties that won’t invite many sing-alongs. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop recommending them, though, because they keep getting better even as they continually subvert expectations.
Their newest album, I Am Very Far, features the band going out on surprising musical limbs, and Sheff mostly leaving behind the short-story type narratives of which he was so fond on Okkervil River’s last two albums, The StageNames and The Stand Ins. Those two albums were interconnected, with characters from one album showing up on the other, but the new release has less of a thematic bent. Instead, Sheff has concentrated on making each song its own distinct experience.
At times here, Okkervil River achieves a musical grandeur that's both accessible and impressive. “Rider” is a driving rocker with Springsteen-like keyboard flourishes, and “White Shadow Waltz” has a woozy, swirling vibe that nevertheless reaches anthemic proportions, sounding like one of Arcade Fire’s more ornate constructions. But Sheff’s lyrics stay pretty vague, even as individual words and phrases hit home on their own.
The musical diversity from track-to-track here is ambitious, to say the least. It’s almost humorous to think that this band (most likely because of where they originated) got originally lumped in with the alt-country movement. There is certainly very little twang on display on I Am Very Far, but there is a cheeky samba groove that shows up on “Your Past Life As A Blast,” while album-closer “The Rise,” with its echoing vocal effects and weightless feel, is reminiscent of the work of Sufjan Stevens.
What Okkervil River proves here is that they can be as equally affecting going for broke as they are tugging on the reins. “We Need A Myth” is the centerpiece, all dramatic violins and crescendos — a grand statement of an entire generation “cut adrift” and desperate for some answers that reality can’t provide. By contrast, “Lay Of The Last Survivor” features humbler, but no less effective, instrumentation, just the core members of the band embellished by some striking woodwinds.
This band can even do the small and the big in a single song. “Hanging For A Hit” starts as a gentle stroll, Sheff ambling about in a moonlit dream. But he pulls back the rug on this romantic interlude with the line, “I lie back on my pillow and ask what her husband is like.” From there the song builds into an anguished wail, with emotion almost unbearably raw.
When you throw in the visceral punch of “The Valley” and the desperate waltz “Wake And Be Fine,” you’ve got an album with very few holes. I Am Very Far is probably too prickly to attract anything much beyond the band’s loyal base. And that’s probably just fine with Sheff and Okkervil River, who continue to make challenging, surprising and stimulating music that is built more for the long haul than it is for the big time.