“The Liar Who Lied In His Pop Song”

Will Sheff of Okkervil River

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.


8 thoughts on ““The Liar Who Lied In His Pop Song”

  1. Matthew says:

    I’ve been aware of Okkervil River for years now but never felt compelled to give them a proper listen – until now. Cheers Dan!

  2. Not much to add here, it was an awe inspiring show. Will really is such a magnetic frontman in a way I really hadn’t been prepared for. Wasn’t expecting his voice to be quite so magnificent in a live context either. The version of ‘A Stone’ gave me goose bumps and I thought it was telling that the few people chatting as he started to play it were stunned into absolute silence.

    As an aside Dan, I don’t like Black Sheep Boy as much as their other records. It seems slightly too calculated and, to use a term I don’t really like, ’emo’. I’m thinking of, in particular, a song like ‘For Real’ (“Some nights I thirst for real blood” – way to pile on the melodrama). For my money The Stage Names or Down the River of Golden Dreams are them at their best 🙂

  3. danhartland says:

    Andy, I thought if anything Sheff’s vocal was stronger live than on record! I was surprised by the quality of his showmanship, too – I hadn’t at all been expecting that kind of show, and certainly not a masterclass in that kind of show!

    As to Black Sheep Boy, I know what you mean – it is certainly an album deliberately setting out to do something, and a determinist something at that. So, yes, it’s open to the emo accusation. But my take on that would be that it’s too literate an album to be taken at face value like that: the repetition of ‘real’ and ‘really’ throughout ‘For Real’, for instance, suggests that the song know it’s trying too hard, just as perhaps the narrator is trying too hard. In that sense, it’s an anti-emo song. Having said that, I may be giving it too much credit. 😛

  4. Yeh, I admit what I said was being a bit unfair on the album. It is a much too complex beast to dismiss with the dreaded ’emo’ tag. I gave it a listen after posting that and really enjoyed most of it, and I agree that there is something knowing about the delivery on For Real (a song I do enjoy by the way, despite my misgivings). I don’t know though, something about the album as an overall experience still leaves me a little cold.

    Ohs, someone to recommend to ya…

    Nicely ramshackle acoustic (with whacky clappy percussion) dittys 😉

  5. Becky says:

    Nothing to add other than that I found the gig to be truly captivating. I don’t think much of the Civic/Wulfrun’s curfew though – so sad we missed ‘Unless It’s Kicks’ (which reminds me a little of James’s ‘Tomorrow’!).

    Good to bump into you too!

  6. Pingback: Rockstar or notstar? Okkervil River, Academy 2, 5/9/09 « By Fuselage

  7. Pingback: Rory Erickson and Okkervil River « @Number 71

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