The last time the currents of Okkervil River rushed through our ears, The Stage Names resolved into a sing-songy, direct quotation of the Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B.” An orchestral bridge unites that album with the band’s latest, The Stand Ins, billed as the sequel to Stage Names. Once across, former Okkervil member Jonathan Meiburg channels Jarvis Cocker for his duet with lead singer Will Sheff on “Lost Coastlines.” It’s a straight line from Pet Sounds to Pulp’s Different Class, and while Stand Ins and its predecessor share R&B riffs affected with a country twang, connecting this latest dip in the Okkervil to a ‘90s Pulp-y-ness is a refreshing move.
Stage Names was framed with the self-aware device of a band writing about the trials and travails of the road, yet its most successful tracks were the ones that were immersed in the narrative itself, not the language-game tracks that attempted to comment on the act of narrating. When telling stories of the girlfriends and groupies, Sheff’s songwriting contained his most inventive phrasing. The Stand Ins relationships are still rocky, but this time the specifics of the Plus Ones are more concrete. Disappointingly, the exactness of Sheff’s women here renders a couple of the stories banal.
Wrens member Charles Bissell’s guitar shoots some country grit into “Singer Songwriter,” a track that spits a few fiery barbs at an ex, but the feuding couple in the song are overeducated and enjoy such incredible privilege (Chanel, Artaud and flat-panel screens) that it’s hard to care about any of their complaints. The song is the clever rant of one who wants to write in a voice of nonchalant, ironic machismo like Kristofferson, but unlike Kris, can’t land his punches. “Calling and Not Calling My Ex,” an ode to the lover who left, whose smile “shines from the glossy magazine that’s stuck inside the Sunday Times,” struggles with constructing a critical mass of concern. There’s enough detail to convince us that “someone” lost a beautiful woman, but not enough for the tale to be compelling. Despite its attempts to convey sensitivity, it sounds insecure instead: “Look who slept in my sheets!”
Altogether, the specifics amount to less than Sheff’s elusive descriptions of Marie, Cindy and Holly in Stage Names. Fortunately, “Starry Stairs,” “Blue Tulip” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” recover the tone of that album’s storytelling and protect Stand Ins from collapsing. The album does surpass its predecessor in a crucial area: the use of narrative tricks. Where Stage Names simply broke down the fourth wall with varying degrees of success, Stand Ins takes the next step by having the songs sing back to their creators and audiences. On “Pop Lie,” Okkervil mimics the sound of the New Pornographers with their use of synths, acoustic strums and handclaps and tells its frazzled tale from the point of view of the song itself. The “pop song” is the exploited victim of the ruthless rock-star author and is evangelizing, frantically to anyone who will listen, that those musicians are all liars, using their cunning to anesthetize the audience. When they’re done with the beleaguered pop song, the audience will not be enriched, but returned to their droll “manicured lawns.”
Black Sheep Boy remains the standard in Okkervil River’s Neutral-Milky-Americana catalogue: a solemn and surreal post-9/11 fever dream for the hyper-literate. And while this particular experiment in meta-fiction and the history of pop is less impressive, it still contains some sexy genre incest for those who decode their rock n’ roll through a MFA.