Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins

It doesn’t feel like a year, but we just double checked and its true: We excitedly evaluated The Stage Names late last July. Now, 12 months and change later, Will Sheff & Co. are back with The Stage Names’ sequel and the band’s fifth full-length, The Stand-Ins. As the skeletal artwork and Sheff himself suggested, the new collection connects to its predecessor, continuing, echoing, and extending the story. You get more self-reflexive meta along the lines of the older “Title Track” in “Blue Tulip,” etc. “Starry Stairs” is the continuation of the Savannah-themed (dead porn star, not southern city) “Savannah Smiles.” The first proper song “Lost Coastlines” also continues its predecessor’s seafaring themes and metaphors. This standout, which looks at the often turbulent waters that face a band, features the voice of the departed Jonathan Meiburg, who left the band to concentrate on Shearwater’s bird and water songs. It’s a poignant, rollicking farewell. One thing we’re not clear on: How are the characters in these songs — the ostensible stand-ins — any different than those with bona fide stage names? As far as we can tell, they all seem equally lost, confused. Maybe they’re watching from the sidelines?

Outside of Sheff’s lyrics, there are three instrumental interludes: “Stand Ins, One” (ambient, rising instrumentation, the opening swell), “Stand Ins, Two” (poignant. moody guitars and strings and things) and “Stand Ins, Three” (swelling stringed closure). They work as pauses or breaks, maybe offering scene changes or distance between a track and the one that follows it. They don’t seem necessary, but they are nice cinematic touches.

As far as The Stand-Ins’s players, we get a varied lot. There’s the rich, but uselessly dabbling in “Singer Songwriter”: It’s “all in your hand,” Artaud’s on the bookshelf, the thesis about the Gospel of Thomas has been written, the experimental film’s been shot, but “your world is gonna change nothing.” (Then that “your” becomes a self-indicting “our.”) The song features an insightful line about a flawed film, how “its flaws were what made us have fun.” This notion of flawed beauty pairs well with “Blue Tulip,” a song about the bittersweet stress of being a successful musician: “They’re waiting to hate you / so give them an excuse / … they say that it changed you,” etc. Fittingly, it ends with a dramatic instrumental exeunt. You know, rock-star stuff.

We get more music-industry meta in “Pop Lie,” a song about words and music calculated to make you sing along. (Like the song the band’s currently playing, of course.) We see the life of a groupie/someone in love/lust with someone in a band in the moving “On Tour With Zykos.” (As far as we can tell, there’s nobody named “John” in the actual Austin band Zykos, but no doubt they do on tour.) From the point of view of a spurned or lost or left-behind lover of a touring musician, even if you’re not on tour with the band, you sorta are.

Things get more off-stage personal in bouncy, countrified “Calling And Not Calling My Ex.” The protagonist is faced with a jealous, distant J Geils “Centerfold” conundrum (“With out-streched hands / now she commands a famous figure / for every picture”). As you might expect, though it’s more moving — sorta like Raymond Carver writing the vignette, not, well, J Geils.

Interestingly, Bruce Wayne Campbell closes this one out via “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979″ vs. The Stage Names’s John Berryman in the Beach Boys and sailing referencing “John Allyn Smith Sails.” Very different artists, very different deaths. Campbell was an openly gay, alien-themed glam rocker who didn’t live up to huge expectations, ended up singing cabaret at small parties under the name Cole Berlin. Suffering from AIDS, letdowns, he killed himself in 1983. “Bruce Wayne…” the song catches him in 1979, a few years after his first pair of albums failed, but before things went entirely south. He’s drinking alone, “sick with singing the same songs,” reminiscing about better time (and kisses and touches), but he still has fight left: “You think I’m finished, / think I’m not winning / Well, go on assume.” The song ends with Campbell taking off (being lifted, really) from the loneliest street corner into space, far from the maddening crowd, safe among real stars (but not real people). With that, Okkervil River pull down the shades (a la the curtain) and kill the morning, setting us up for the next scene because, after all, there’s “another morning after afternoon and tonight.”

The Stand-Ins is only 40 minutes long, including the instrumentals. It feels tight. It’s not as ragged or over-the-top as Black Sheep Boy, etc., which feels very fitting. Going back to our initial question about how these people are different than the folks populating The Stage Names … It doesn’t work for each track, but by and large, though Sheff is still focusing on the silver screen, instead of the images that flicker on and in front of it, we’re getting those left in the margins, backstage, and in the audience … and discovering how each of their lives is just as important.

The Stand-Ins is out 9/9 via Jagjaguwar.