by kevin diamond

Okkervil River’s fourth album, The Stage Names, was universally heralded as one of the top albums of 2007. Dealing with themes of death and despair, as viewed through the lenses of stardom, fandom and idolatry, it was rightfully christened a masterpiece of form, teetering on the brink of post-modernism but never straying too far from the tethering grip of emotional realism. This balancing act allowed the listener to laugh and cry, often within the span of a few words in a single lyric. It was somber, moving, playful, and, most importantly, fun.


As was often mentioned in interviews and reviews at the time, The Stage Names was conceived as a double album. And, like two halves of some ancient beetle pedant brought fatefully together, the double album will be completed next month with the release of The Stand Ins.

Made up of material scraped from the second half of Stage Names, The Stand Ins merits wonder of its own. How could an abandoned second half of a proposed double album be so good? Well, it doesn’t matter how. All that matters is it IS that good. In fact, it’s arguably a stronger album, musically if not lyrically, with more styles, moods, and shifts than its predecessor.

Where Stage Names primarily dealt with the emotional complications of those being worshiped (your rock stars, your poets, your porn stars), Stand Ins views said subject matter from the point of view of the outsiders – the ex boyfriends, ex girlfriends, the crazy fans, the former band members; the lives and emotions of those on the periphery of the characters in the spotlight on Stage Names.

After opening with one of three short instrumental pieces that serve almost as act breaks, the album launches into “Lost Coastlines.” It’s a gorgeous duet between Sheff and recently departed band mate/current Shearwater leader Jason Meiburg about the hardships of trying to keep the band together. Sheff’s fire-spitting yelp and Meiburgs rich baritone croon compliment each other like a Marlboro Red Cowboy Killer washed down with a shot of premium brandy. Delicious.

Coastlines leads in to Singer Songwriter, a vicious rip into the privileged life, replete with the wit and humor we’ve come to expect from Sheff’s lyrics: “Your great grandfather was a great lawyer/And his kid made a mint from the war/your father shot stills and then edited films/that your mom did publicity for,” he sings, before launching into sing-along chorus “you come from wealth/what a bitch/they didn’t give you much else.Stinging.


Almost every song contains lyrics that beg to be quoted. From standout track, and hopefully first single, “Pop Lie,” an almost perfect amalgam of pop music clichés and staples (He’s a liar who lies in his pop songs/and you lie when you sing along) to the heartbreaking lost-love anthem “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” (During the fight/I said yeah right/when you insisted that I visit, that you’d write/now I know you’re working hard so I never hear from you and that’s fine/you look the same on TV as when you were mine), Sheff inhabits not only the minds, but the souls of his characters, bringing a warmth and energy to every nuanced bit of emotion he sings.

The only clunker, if it can be called that, might be “Blue Tulips.” A slow burn by design, it’s placement as the fourth track (after the brilliant “Savanah Smiles” sequal “Starry Stairs”) seems to slow the pace of the album to a crawl. It’s a good song, one that grows on you with repeated listens, and the pacing of the album quickly picks up again once aforementioned “Pop Lie” starts up, but it can be a bit of a roadblock on the first couple spins.

That’s all I can find to complain about. It’s such a solid album; Sheff fits more into the 9 proper songs on this album than many bands fit into their entire catalogs. His command of the English language and his ability to tell a captivating story rivals that of Colin Meloy, with less pretension and bookworm attitude. Call it the working man’s Decemberists. Just don’t call them overrated; theses guys deserve all the acclaim they receive. I find it hard to believe there will be a better album released all year. We’ll have to wait and see how good that new TV On The Radio album is.

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