Commentary: Okkervil River | KERA News

Commentary: Okkervil River

Dallas, TX –

For more than three decades, Austin, Texas has maintained a romantic reputation as the guardian of everything that's pure and good about American music. Hometown heroes like Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely and Jimmy LaFave have long exhibited a stubborn allegiance to traditional blues, folk and country that in this era of televised talent shows spells the difference between being an Idol and being an icon.

But while twangy torchbearers still fill such revered venues as the Broken Spoke and the Continental Club, they no longer represent the essence of the multi-faceted Austin scene: The sound of the city has shifted away from roots consciousness and more toward nervy innovation over the past five years as college musicians have matured into artists and MySpace and music blogs have replaced newspapers and magazines as tastemakers. Ask anyone under age 30 to make a playlist of their favorite Austin music and they'll likely include the irresistible alterna-pop of Spoon and Voxtrot, the instrumental splendor of Explosions in the Sky, the frenetic electronic beats of Ghostland Observatory, and the brooding glory of Okkervil River, whose just-released fourth album titled The Stage Names reflects the vibrant new sound of Austin more vividly than any CD of this young century.

Named after a short story by Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstaya, Okkervil River could easily be misinterpreted as a thinking man's rock band. Front man Will Sheff pens passionate, journal-like lyrics loaded with cinematic imagery and literary touchstones, finding inspiration in such obscure events as the suicides of Oklahoma poet John Berryman and Texas-raised porn star Shannon Wilsey.

But this six-man band is neither self-absorbed nor self-pitying. Standout tracks like "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe," "Unless It's Kicks" and the gorgeous "A Girl in Port" are driven more by emotion than analysis, offsetting Sheff's melancholy meditations with major chords and catchy choruses. Pianos, cellos and xylophones splash against the minimalist, guitar-based arrangements to bring soft-focus textures to Sheff's unflattering portraits of a father sneaking peeks at his daughter's diary to learn something, anything about her, or a road-ravaged rock star realizing he's lived most of his life in a dry-ice fog.

Sheff's urgent, untethered singing remains the band's trademark. As he careens from a confessional whisper to a confrontational yelp, he sounds like Bryan Ferry going through shock therapy, or a hyper-active Bono with more guts and better enunciation. Each breath reverberates like a gun reloading, each howl pushes the volume to the point of distortion. As his characters rail against wasted youth and America's fascination with celebrity culture - or as Sheff calls it, the "Hollywood Babylon bike-a-thons" - he doesn't just sound angry or discouraged. He sounds alive.

Okkervil River's view of life may be bleak but on The Stage Names, they insist that longing for the clean edits and happy endings of a movie is an even more miserable existence. They rail against false hope with unflagging determination and yearning - it's an unsettling message, but it's comforting to know that the evolving sound of Austin is in such capable, trembling hands.

David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo! in Dallas and a former contributor to ICE Magazine, Rolling Stone and the Dallas Morning News.

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