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Okkervil River - The Stage Names

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Artist: Okkervil River

Album: The Stage Names

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Aug. 13, 2007

There's a moment about two minutes into "Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe," the first song on The Stage Names where the band quite simply slips its bonds. Even up to this point, the song has been a coiled spring of melodic energy, its staccato bursts of words caroming against a tense rhythm of clamped guitar and snare shots. It begins to cut loose in the first chorus, in bigger drums and dramatic, flaring vocals, yet it cuts back to nothing. The release, the payoff, the emotional peak comes only later, in a series of rising guitar strums and wordless blurts of vocal sound. At that moment, the song becomes more than a clever arrangement of notes and words (and the words are rather clever, more on that later). It becomes more than an alt.whatever display case for literacy and skill. It becomes a song that conducts joy so transparently, so directly, that it becomes joy itself. It gives me chills every time.

The Stage Names is the fourth full-length for Okkervil River, following on 2005's widely lauded Black Sheep Boy. Yet while Black Sheep Boy tended to attract adjectives like heavy and heart-worn, The Stage Names is raucous, rambunctious and occasionally quite funny. Hand claps, piano plinks and good time guitar chords pace "A Hand to Take Hold of a Scene," while "Unless It's Kicks" rides a twitchy, r 'n r guitar riff. The sting is in the words; the music is manically upbeat.

Sharply drawn women wander in and out of songs. There are nice girls - the sweet, shy Cindy who wanders into "A Girl In Port" as someone's date and ends up with a song dedicated to her, or the fondly imagined daughter of "Savannah Smiles." Yet, there are also memorably tough ones, most particularly the Marie of "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man." We first observe her passed out in the chair in a high rise hotel, "Her once fussed over hair / all mussed into an...I've...just...been...fucked ...shape." She is nine years younger than the star she's attached herself to and getting a little cynical about things. "Our silver screen affair / It was less to me than air / It's a gas now, it's a laugh / Just how far several mill can take you." The song is a rowdy sing-along, its happy, country-ish vibe mocking the dead-eyed satire in the lyrics.

A good number (though not all) of the songs are about performance, performers and the people around them...essentially what happens when the show stops. The clever "Plus Ones" gives this theme a word-game spin, its lyrics studded with references to well-known songs with numbers in them, except the numbers are "plus one." For instance, we hear about eight Chinese brothers, a woman who flies nine miles high, "the 51st way to leave your lover." All these clever references are wrapped into a stream of images so continuous and fluid that you hardly pick them out at first. What's artful about the writing is not just that it plays difficult games, but that you never see the strain.

And that, maybe, is the secret to why The Stage Names is so good. It's a layered piece of work, its joy on the surface, its bitter, complicated wit buried beneath. No effort is required to enjoy the album. You almost can't help but be swept away by its sheer exuberant force. Yet effort, if you wish to expend it, will pay off, as every listen reveals a new striking line, a skillfully placed flourish.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Okkervil River

Sleep and Wake-Up Songs

Black Sheep Boy

I Am Very Far

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View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

Find out more about Jagjaguwar

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