Okkervil River

The Stand Ins

With Will Sheff’s literary tendencies already well documented, it’s little surprise that he’s asking us to view The Stand Ins, the latest from his band Okkervil River, as a companion piece to The Stage Names, their 2007 breakthrough. The cover art is even designed to sit underneath its predecessors, revealing a decomposed skeleton attached to the hand sticking out of the sun kissed quicksand adorning the front of The Stage Names.

Morbidly profound? Not exactly, but with Sheff once again trading in fictional scenarios and rich, character driven narratives, The Stand Ins finds the man affirming his place in the literate indie set that counts the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle among its ranks.

Yet while Finn makes a case for redemption with his aging rebels and tales of young, beer swilling punks, Sheff’s songs occupy a space on The Stand Ins that’s decidedly more ambiguous in tone, and they’re all the better for it.

It’s a space filled with wordy accounts of flawed figures, fading celebrities and self-loathing jabs at singer-songwriters, pop stars and affluent hipsters. So instead of simplistic takes on heartbreak, we get narrators discussing past-loves who’ve made it big in the pictures. Say, for example, lines like "She was once mine, that smile that shines from the glossy magazine, that’s stuck inside the Sunday Times" on ‘Calling And Not Calling My Ex’

However, it’s ‘Show Me the Coastline’ and closer ‘Meeting Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979’ which serve as the standout tracks. The former features Shearwater frontman Jonathon Meiburg (a one-time member of Okkervil River) joining Sheff on vocal duties as they rally around a motown bass-line and a rousing chorus of "Lalalas". The latter track pays tribute to gay ‘70s rock star Jobriath as it swells up into a memorable, horn-drenched crescendo of honky-tonk chords, orchestral pop and Sheff’s wailing croon.

The Stand Ins may feel like familiar terrain for anyone endeared to The Stage Names. But where that record occasionally felt cluttered with Sheff’s words and ideas hurriedly stacked one on top of the other till they occasionally proved difficult to swallow, this time around they’ve allowed the lyrics and their country tinged rock the space needed to breathe and grow. If The Stage Names was the sound of a band reaching for maturity, The Stand Ins finds them grasping it with complete confidence.

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