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Okkervil River: The Stage Names (Album Review)

Admittedly, the life of a touring indie rock hero isn’t the hardest row to hoe, and the thought of some privileged white dude whining about how tough it is to, y’know, not wash for a couple days and ride a tour bus cross-country just so’s he can sell a couple CDs and drink free beer is enough to make anyone choke on their own bile.

So the fact that Okkervil River main man Will Sheff’s loosely linked collection of songs exploring the dark, rank underbelly of life as a rock ‘n’ roller is not only great, but leaves you with intense empathy for travelling troubadours is a testament to the man’s tremendous skill as a songwriter.

Sheff manages to tease out captivating songs by wriggling right inside the brain of his protagonists – the long-suffering girlfriend patiently waiting backstage in Plus Ones, the frontman desperate to connect with (and protect) the sensitive girl in the crowd in Unless It’s Kicks, the dad who wishes he hadn’t stumbled on his daughter’s diary in Savannah Smiles. The storytelling here is phenomenal.

The Stage Names is much more of a balls-out rock album than most of Okkervil River’s oeuvre, and also more orchestral and layered, with arrangements that include everything from non-sissy glockenspiel to metronome percussion. The complexity is the perfect counterpart to Sheff’s dense writing.
(Sarah Liss)