CD Review of The Stand Ins by Okkervil River
Recommended if you like
David Bowie, Queen, Spoon
Okkervil River:
The Stand Ins

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

ome of rock’s best reps have been of the over-top-variety -- supreme showmen who turned their bands’ output into works of grandiose theater. David Bowie and Freddie Mercury immediately spring to mind, but Jim Morrison, Ray Davies and Rod Stewart could also qualify as preeminent posers, and the fond memories they planted in rock’s fertile plain owe as much to their image as to their musical mantras.

So if Will Sheff of Okkervil River occasionally seems to posture and preen, it could be construed that he’s merely borrowing from established precedents. Even so, the band’s output so far has found them teetering that narrow divide between their fans’ intense adulation and those find little patience for such affectations. Indeed, all would have to agree that Okkervil’s output has certainly tilted towards the overly dramatic pronouncements of one who, as Shakespeare once said , “…struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” Fortunately, though, the group work out reliably behind Sheff’s flights of fancy, and as a result, their albums are compelling, if somewhat grandiose, and comfortably removed from the clownish attempts a less competent band might have proffered in their place.

Okkervil’s latest offering, The Stand Ins, is billed as a follow-up of sorts to The Stage Names, their most expressive effort to date, and appropriately it follows suit, a bold, brash statement of principle and purpose. Sheff is, as usual, in full revelry mode, pontificating with a swoon and croon that imbues each song with an elevated sense of passion and importance. Always demonstrative, his performances are frequently stirring, especially when he rouses the faithful through the la-la chorus of “Lost Coastlines,” the ricochet rhythms of “Singer Songwriters” and the rallying, celebratory stance of “Pop Lie.” However, he’s equally effective taking the opposite tact, moping about with self-pitying pathos via the depressive sway of “On Tour With the Zykos” or the laboriously titled “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel 1979,” two soap operatic songs that bemoan disingenuous circumstance.

Underscoring it all, Sheff demonstrates that he’s a literate songwriter. The entire album is wrapped in fables that belie the myth of pop stardom, all cast in an ample dose of downcast deliberation. Consequently, he can be brutal, particularly when he lambastes the rock star regimen. “Go sing songs / Go rock on / Roll your crew down the road to the next sold-out show,” he urges the central figure of the aforementioned “On Tour with Zykos,” before zinging him with the retort, “ “I want you to know you’re a figure of fun to everyone… “

Of course, given his flamboyant stance, Sheff might just as well be describing himself, and his bold strokes leave him open to charges of dodgy pretension. Fortunately, The Stand Ins is at its core a splendid surprise, one that lives up to its obvious ambition and resonates all the more effectively for it.

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