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Okkervil River
I Am Very Far Michael Dix , May 11th, 2011 11:31

Looking back at their considerable discography, it's hard to fathom why Austin, Texas' Okkervil River have never managed to achieve the same level of success as some of their more fawned-over peers. Over the course of a fifteen year career, frontman Will Sheff and his ever expanding army of musicians have tried their luck at countless sounds and come up trumps every time. Although rooted in folky Americana, the band have detoured into old-fashioned rock & roll, edgy minimalism, soulful R&B and baroque orchestral pop, resulting in a string of albums that sound like the best bits of Wilco, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire all rolled into one. Yet while new material from any of those groups would guarantee a frenzy of excitable blog posts and message-board discussion, somehow Okkervil River have thus far failed to inspire the same kind of rabid devotion.

The group's sixth full-length album I Am Very Far is unlikely to propel them onto any magazine covers, or win them a Best International Band award at the Brits, but long-term fans will find be happy to learn that it ranks alongside their very best work. Moving away from the conceptual character studies of their last three records (2005's Black Sheep Boy was based on the life of doomed folk singer Tim Hardin, while The Stage Names and its companion disc The Stand Ins were loose meditations on fame and celebrity), Sheff's songwriting here is lyrically more abstract, and musically more expansive than ever. With up to thirteen musicians playing together at any one time, and Sheff himself assuming the role of producer, I Am Very Far is like a big budget Hollywood adaptation of a cult novel.

It also contains some of the darkest material Sheff has produced in recent years. Mirroring the blues and purples that colour the gothic sleeve art, a sense of malicious intent spreads through these songs like a bruise. It's most obvious in the whip-crack snares and sawing strings of opener 'The Valley', the shimmering heat-haze of white noise that is 'Show Yourself' and the taunting swagger of aggro punk waltz 'Wake And Be Fine', but even the sunnier, more up-tempo numbers here hide enough lines about murderers, dead animals and the harsh realities of nature's beauty to maintain an air of almost constant unease. There's blood here, too, and lots of it, running like rivers, seeping through clothes. Those of a queasy disposition might want to steer clear.

Of course, Sheff's talents extend to more than just his lyrics, and the album's arrangements are impressively ambitious. The sleek, funky 'Piratess' throbs with a mechanical menace while the shuffling 'Your Past Life As A Blast' exudes a vaguely exotic, beachy vibe. 'White Shadow Waltz' and 'Rider' are bombastic, string-enhanced sugar-rush anthems right out of Win Butler's kitchen-sink songbook, while epic, elegiac closer 'The Rise' builds to an oceanic swell. Best of all, though, is the stately 'We Need A Myth', which steals a trick from Diana Ross' Bee Gees-penned 'Chain Reaction', riding a seemingly endless procession of ascending key-changes to a show-stopping climax.

Despite lacking an overall theme, I Am Very Far hangs together as well as any of its predecessors, and although several tracks stand alongside the likes of 'Black', 'Pop Lie' and 'Lost Coastlines' as college-rock anthems in waiting, this feels more like an album in the traditional sense of the word than just a collection of singles and fillers. Circling back to an earlier point about books and films, Sheff's music shares a certain amount of aesthetic common ground with the works of Cormac McCarthy and the Coens, and whilst this outsider approach might just explain the group's lack of commercial success, the singer seems content leaving the more mainstream melodrama to the likes of Bright Eyes and the Hold Steady. Happy endings are in short supply here, but for those who like their popcorn salty this engaging, immersive album offers plenty to chew on.

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