The friend who introduced me to Okkervil River a few years ago dubbed them “the most depressing shit ever,” and while he meant it as a kind of compliment, The Stage Names shows that the band is turning its back on the emotional wear-and-tear of Down the River of Golden Dreams and Black Sheep Boy. These are, from a melodic standpoint, innately likeable songs. “A Girl in Port” is a lovely piano-driven ballad that ought to appeal to Ben Folds or Mermaid Avenue fans, “Unless It's Kicks” and “You Can't Hold the Hand of the Rock and Roll Man” are both bouncy pop songs in the pub-rock tradition of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe. Opener “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” takes the loud-quiet-loud romp of Black Sheep Boy's best song, “For Real,” and juices it with some—the word cannot be avoided—happier sounding pop hooks. But the band's arrangements are still wonderfully unpolished, so while these tunes should please anyone who buys CDs at Starbucks, they still pack some ragged glory of what makes the Austin collective so intoxicating on stage. And at 42 minutes, the whole album is as tight and listenable as any indie-rock full-length this year.
So, on to what's problematic. While Stage Names's songs and production should appeal to a far wider audience than the band's previous efforts, Will Sheff's voice is as grating as ever. His yelpy tenor can be captivating; at times, he sounds like a Dixie-fried version of Robert Smith. But for all his emotionalism, Smith's vocals are more balanced and controlled and, unlike Sheff's, never leap uncomfortably between octaves, sacrificing skill for Oberst-level earnestness. Similarly, Sheff's lyrics are a mixed bag. It goes without saying that Okkervil River belongs to the crop of “literary” rock bands like Colin Meloy's Decemberists: the liner notes quote the Tatyana Tolstaya short story from which the band's name is derived and feature a photo of Rene Daumal's novel A Night of Serious Drinking, and the album's closer “John Allyn Smith Sails” tells the story of poet John Berryman's suicide. Sheff's love of intertextuality is, at heart, fine and admirable, but while we should theoretically like our rock music and musicians smart, do we really? Isn't “Louie Louie” every bit as great as “The Stranger Song,” if not better?
Take “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe,” which is sung from the perspective of a film's character to another describing and deriding the very flick they both inhabit (“It's just a bad movie,” with “no fade in” and “no dissolve to a sliver of gray”). As far as indie-rock songs go, this is a pretty clever concept, but as a submission in a creative writing class, it'd probably get a B- and a note asking Sheff if he'd just read Delmore Schwartz's “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” And as elegant as the Berryman ode “John Allyn Smith Sails” is, its most exhilarating moment is when the band slips into a rowdy rendition of “Sloop John B.” The track “Plus Ones” references a bevy of numerical-themed rock songs (“96 Tears,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” “99 Luftballoons,” etc.) by literally trying to one-up them: the characters in Sheff's song have 100 balloons, cry 97 tears, and kiss eight Chinese brothers. Again, it's smart, but not exactly brilliant.