Eyes right, people. Okkervil River’s latest LP, The Stand Ins, is listed under our favourite sounds of the month. Anna’s brother was the first to alert me to the existence of Will Sheff’s indie rock outfit, giving me their 2005 concept album, Black Sheep Boy, as a birthday present. The Stand Ins doesn’t quite have the depth and breadth of that earlier, doleful but witty, record, but makes up for it in the sheer quality of its tunes.
This made each of the new songs highlights of last night’s Okkervil River show at Wolverhampton’s Wulfrun Hall – the brash singalong of ‘Lost Coastline’, or the catchy hooks of ‘Starry Stairs’ are songs made to get the crowd onside. As noted in the side bar, these songs are actually carefully choreographed short stories, proper narratives with an eye for the telling detail. (In ‘Singer Songwriter’, Sheff witheringly sings: ‘while The Last Laugh‘s first scene, on your flat panel screen, lit Chanel that you wrapped around yourself.’)
What most strikes an audience live, however, is Sheff’s starting energy levels – he swings his Martin, jumps and jives, and delivers what on record are fairly intimate if intricate songs with significant gusto – a hipster Elvis, the hips a little wry around the edges.
He is supported in all this by a physically low-key but musically intricate band, all but changed uncrecognisably since Okkervil River’s founding in 1998, but nevertheless perfectly clustered around each tunes. Multi-instrumentalists, they treated the audience to trumpets, accordions and pedal steel amongst the guitars and keyboards. There was never a moment of overt musicianship, and yet the unnoticed instrument changes, or simple, pitch perfect riffs, became all the more impressive for that.
If this carefulness didn’t quite reach the half-improvised heights of Calexico (see a post over at the Colour blog), it did make for a thoroughly enjoyable – and deeply engrossing – live show. Engrossing is not an easy thing to carry off in a gig, and when Sheff shed himself of almost all other accompaniment for an unadorned version of the devastating ‘A Stone’, the room remained totally silent. Kudos.
The band’s current Web 2.0 wheeze is to let people they’ve met on tour do covers of the new songs on YouTube. Go discover them: in the words of the song from which this post’s title is taken, they are sweetly sung and succinctly stated. And not half catchy, neither.