Don’t let the pedal steel fool you

Okkervil River
Who said there’s not big bucks in alt-country? The boys of Okkervil River with some of their most hardcore fans. photo by Mary Sledd

On the eve of its current tour, the Austin, Texas, band Okkervil River released the provocatively titled single, “The President Is Dead.” In keeping with the band’s catalog, the song isn’t as simple as it sounds — this is no ham-fisted call to arms on either side of the political spectrum. Instead, it’s a meditation on how dramatic events ripple through the lives of ordinary people, and it dares to suggest that Republicans have feelings, too.

“The best art unsettles and seduces in equal measure,” declares Will Sheff, Okkervil’s tenor-voiced singer and chief songwriter. “Protest songs seem shallow because they’re usually preaching to the choir in a platitudinous way. So I thought it might be more useful to write a song that muddies up my position and hopefully elicits a deeper reaction than just a hearty slap on the back and ‘Oh, you’re so right in what you believe.'”

In just under three minutes, “The President Is Dead” showcases Okkervil’s penchant for confounding expectations. The band is often clumsily lumped into the alt-country or Americana ghettos because it sometimes uses pedal steel in its arrangements, but its music is far more ambitious and nuanced — the details are as potent as the gut-wrenching directness. With its practiced avoidance of simplistic solutions, Okkervil’s compositions are shaded with Will Oldham’s complex intimacy and the unhinged passion of Neutral Milk Hotel. Like the latter’s Jeff Mangum, Sheff sings like he’s on fire and writes like a demon, reeling off cinematic images with an ease that obscures the craftsmanship of his poetic wordplay.

Sheff draws as much inspiration from writers such as Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and Walt Whitman as he does from other songwriters. Okkervil River is even named after a short story by Tolstoy’s great-grandniece Tatyana Tolstaya.

“You get the sense that the words are clamoring to jump off the page and knock you down,” enthuses Sheff of his favorite writers’ works. “I like art to be flush with blood like that, to feel like it’s living and writhing.”

Okkervil’s first two records hinted at such promise, but Sheff and the band really found their musical footing with 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams. The record’s orchestral textures complemented the yearning of Sheff’s characters; string-and-brass crescendos, Wurlitzer swells and Mellotron swirls contrasted with whispered talk of illicit assignations and drunken declarations from broken-hearted lovers.

But with their next release, 2005’s critical kudos-magnet Black Sheep Boy, Sheff’s feral howl and literate prose became even more adept at undoing his listeners’ defenses — especially knee-jerk cynicism — while cinching their heartstrings to the music’s roiling emotions. Sonically, the band mixed in more rock influences — primarily electric guitars — to augment Jonathan Meiburg’s keyboards and reiterate the album’s theme, a treatise on the dualities lurking within us all (with an emphasis on the darker side).

The record opens with a brief scene-setting cover of the title Tim Hardin song, but it’s the first original, “For Real,” that sets the tone, the stop/start power chords goading Sheff like a red cape in front of a bull: “Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries,” he snarls, adding later that “there’s nothing quite like the blinding light when that curtain’s cast aside/ and no attempt is made to explain away the things that really, really, really are behind.”

Wurlitzer, vibraphone and lap steel still play prominent roles on the record, as do the country-tinged laments that characterized the band’s previous work. But the accents here seem more urgent, and songs like “Black” surge forward as relentlessly as Arcade Fire’s tumultuous music, while “The Latest Toughs” is a jaunty summer pop song with Stax-like horn blasts that belie the violence lurking just below the surface.

Where Down the River of Golden Dreams used oceanic imagery to capture characters emotionally at sea (thereby initiating a slew of Decemberists’ comparisons), Black Sheep Boy uses fabulist metaphors to illustrate Sheff’s ideas. Castles, foreboding woods and unseen monsters haunt the songs, which are like updated fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, chockfull of bloody intentions and dark secrets.

The dichotomies and complexities of the human condition fuel Okkervil’s artistic muses. But composing songs this dramatic and hyper-literate can be a high wire act between overwrought pretension and transcendence.

“It’s only when you try to do something impossible, and really try to blind yourself to its impossibility and believe you can do it, that you really get at something powerful that can make a difference in people’s lives,” Sheff offers. “And I would rather fail in a spectacular way that entertains people than put out a record that just makes the grade and not much else. True failure is producing safe or dishonest art, and not risking anything.”

[John Schacht is a contributing writer to Harp and Paste magazines.]


Okkervil River plays The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Friday, Oct. 20, with Elvis Perkins and Nevada. 9 p.m. $8/$10. 232-5800.

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