It seems almost rudimentary now that bands attempt the “double album” hurdle. In some sense, it’s an ambitious endeavor, though one plagued with disaster. Why? Usually, the odds are against the band. Some succeed (Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie) and others misstep completely (Stadium Arcadium, anyone?). The problem lies with the lofty freewill of twenty-eight tracks, something that’s usually constricted with the standard twelve to fourteen track release. Bands throw in filler after filler, with some highs, but unnaturally bogged down with lows, begging for fans to plead, “This would have been much better as a single disc.”
That’s where Okkervil River succeeds. Originally conceived as a double album, The Stand-Ins rounds out the stories (and sounds) of last year’s The Stage Names. This move shouldn’t really surprise fans, especially those who’ve stuck around with the band since 2004’s concept album, Black Sheep Boy. It seems almost natural that singer-songwriter Will Sheff writes everything with an overall idea or agenda. In fact, both album covers for The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins complement one another, just throw the former above the latter. As exciting an idea that sounds, the new release is a hodgepodge of emotion, ranging from clicking to trolling without any concise pace.
Following the instrumental and ambient “Stand Ins, One”, the album excels with “Lost Coastlines”, which finds success in a warped 50’s vibe. Bouncy bass and tingly guitar parts fiddle about with Travis Nelson’s catchy-as-hell beats, which all culminate behind Sheff’s syrupy vocals. With the banjo thrown in, this song sounds stripped from a Cameron Crowe movie and when Sheff screams, “And see how that light you’re looking at just won’t shine” it’s thrilling in every way this band can be. Some might consider this the peak of the album. It’s certainly the strongest track of the eleven here. However, such pop and sway continues in the country drive of “Singer Songwriter”, a song that might have been written by Johnny Cash, spinning a tale of a rich, spoiled family with a “great grandfather” who “was a great lawyer”, an “old sis on the year’s best book lists”, and “a brother who manages bands.” Of course it wouldn’t be an Okkervil track without a cynical line like, “And your world is gonna change nothing”, to which he oddly ascribes to us.
It’s soon after that the mood shifts drastically. Continuing with “Starry Stairs”, the Motown-esque ballad for former pornstar Shannon Wisley, who committed suicide in 1994, is slower if not more involved. Between the haunting lyrics (“I’m alive, but a different kind of alive”), a sexy horn section, and a ghostly organ chiming in, the track is layered with surprises. It’s storytelling like this that puts the band on the map, especially since Sheff writes it so poetically without ever inferring something specifically. “Blue Tulip” continues the celebrity angle, only on the opposite end: the fan’s perspective. It’s a bittersweet song that’s fitting, yet there’s something droning about it. At just over six minutes, the build up and finish attempts to be epic, nearly touching the watermark set by last year’s better tuned “Girl in Port.”
“Stand Ins, Two” splits the album, resounding the melody somewhat of “Girl in Port”, which is a bit coincidental, huh? Fortunately, “Pop Lie” breathes some energy and power before things get too depressing. Time on the road with The New Pornographers earlier this year paid off, as the track could stand in, no pun intended, for anything off of Twin Cinema. It moves and shakes and is genuinely happy, carrying a Thin Lizzy swagger, all the way until Sheff softly declares at the end, “This is respectfully dedicated/ to the woman who concentrated/ all of her love to find/ that she had wasted it all.” Sour, huh? Things get dramatic again with the piano driven, “On Tour With Zykos”, that exemplifies Sheff’s knack for lyrical bounce, and the band’s ability to finesse. At the start, some of the progressions seem overused, but It’s less predictable as it chugs along, only because it seems to build and build.
There’s a thick story in the shorter than usual “Calling And Not Calling My Ex”, which might explain why there’s not a conventional chorus. Sheff keeps the story running, mostly over a jubilant melody that slows in the more introspective bridges. Lyrically this reads like a short story, but as a song, it’s sung like a rant or a stream of consciousness. “Stand Ins, Three” is a bit subversive, utilizing violins to signify something dramatic or lost, leading into the closer, “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979”. Keeping in tune with the historical throwbacks of late, the song is a driving dedication to the former glam rocker that shares the name of two historical pop culture figures. It works in the context of the album, but as a separate track, it’s going to struggle finding life.
Judging as a whole, the two albums do work well together. While The Stage Names is certainly a bit edgier, The Stand-Ins is more interesting. What’s more is that they both can stand apart, which is rare for its type of release (Use Your Illusion I & II, anyone?). And those worrying if this release is full of nothing but glorified b-sides, well, you can sleep well. The Stand-Ins is far from being relegated as the bastard sister release. It’s well written, lyrically concise, and instrumentally sound. The only difference is that it’s without the charm of it’s brother. Having said that, with another concept in the bag, Okkervil River is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing bands in recent memory.
However, one wonders what they might sound like happy.