Okkervil River are fast becoming the only band you need. Following last year's stunning album The Stage Names, Will Sheff gives us its sequel - The Stand Ins. It's the band's Amnesiac with the recording sessions for The Stage Names bearing so much fruit that a double album was momentarily considered. Thankfully they bit their tongue and kept us waiting and as much of a treat as The Stage Names was, emerging from the melancholy of Black Sheep Boy with such confidence and grandeur, The Stand Ins swift release simply serves as yet another underlining of the word 'special' when describing this band.
Artist WIlliam Schaff's embroidered artwork that adorned The Stage Names here depicts a haunting skeletal figure with an arm reaching up and out of sight. At the end of this arm is the hand that emerges from the quicksand on the previous cover and lets us know that The Stand Ins aims to be a deeper immersion into the theme of show biz that plagued Sheff's writing earlier. It's the underneath of The Stage Names, it's what goes on behind the scenes and it ain't a pretty picture.
With his cross hairs firmly trained on the world of stage and screen recently, it's the business surrounding good ol' rock n roll that Sheff has it in for here and he treads a strange and complicated line of using the very medium in question to draw our attention to its pitfalls and failings. Lead single Lost Coastlines introduces us to the journey that every band faces and the distance this ship can take you from your starting point. It describes the joys and hardships faced when trying to keep a band together, and ironically, he does this with the help of his old band mate Jonathan Meiburg who, as you all will know, recently left Okkervil River to concentrate on Shearwater. Pop Lie is a scathing attack on the dishonesty of pop music and the manipulation that is used to gather in the fans. He doesn't stop there, and goes on to accuse the fans themselves of lying in the act of singing along. Is he separating himself and his writing from this deceit or telling us, his fans, that we are all a bunch of liars ourselves? Within this doubt lies the success of these songs.
Quite often Sheff places himself on the other side of the limelight, questioning the sanity of adoration. In Starry Stairs, Sheff assumes the supporting role watching the object of his affection being stared at by "these curious sets of eyes" while his heart is stretched to its elastic limit. Similarly in Blue Tulip, Sheff's amorous goals are kept at bay and, downtrodden and beaten, he graciously exclaims "Hats off to my distant hope, I'm held back by a velvet rope." This velvet rope becomes the main theme of Sheff's writing at the moment, standing in for something or someone that keeps us from our truth or our natural home.
Musically Sheff's bow is becoming multi stringed in the most thrilling of progressions. The energetic leap from Black Sheep Boy to The Stage Names was stunning and is continued here. This album follows a similar structure putting it's mightiest songs forward to lead the charge with the more contemplative foot-soldiers following close behind, plotting every step. Lost Highways is the sparing partner to The Stage Names' Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Is It with the jauntiest of basslines rolling unashamedly throughout with Meiburg's croon adding rich texture. The vocals on Singer Songwriter ooze out with a forked tongue as we hear of the musicians who bitch about their woe's when they have everything, while Blue Tulip reluctantly builds to its climax by way of heavy, plodding beats, wailing vocals and an eventual outpouring of the grittiest guitar. As Sheff describes his "distant hope" that is getting ever further away from him the cymbals crash around his words like exploding stars. He portrays a desire of celestial proportions and through the musical magnitude we see his hope collapse like a universe in the final stages of disappearing into itself.
This band may have evolved in the most colossal way since its beginnings but the key facts remain firmly intact. Sheff's direction and obsessive attention to detail make his work endlessly listenable and his courage and forward thinking that led his band out of the type of songwriting that made their name has given rise to this inability to stop creating. The only reason for this album to fall slightly short of its predecessor is that the distance covered between albums hasn't been as jaw-dropping but it seems hardly fair to penalize one creation for being merely as brilliant as the previous one.