Okkervil River
(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See (2002) , 6.5/10
Down the River of Golden Dreams (2003), 6.5/10
Black Sheep Boy (2005), 7/10
The Stage Names (2007), 7/10
The Stand Ins (2008), 6/10
Shearwater: The Dissolving Room (2001), 5.5/10
Shearwater: Everybody Makes Mistakes (2002), 6/10
Shearwater: Winged Life (2004), 6/10
Shearwater: Palo Santo (2006), 7/10
Shearwater: Rook (2008), 6/10
Shearwater: The Golden Archipelago (2010), 6/10
Shearwater: Animal Joy (2012), 5/10
I Am Very Far (2011) , 6/10
The Silver Gymnasium (2013), 6/10

Okkervil River is an alt-country quartet formed in New Hampshire whose first album Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See (Jagjaguwar, 2002), introduced an unusual balance of evocative keyboards (Jonathan Meiburg), strong rhythms (bassist Zachary Thomas, drummer Seth Warren), tasty arrangements (horns, strings) and plaintive vocals (Will Sheff).

The band's arrangements matured with Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar, 2003). The lament of It Ends with a Fall relies on cantillating piano, gospel organ and chamber strings. Storytelling and instrumental parts are tighly integrated, as the accordion and mandolin prove in Dead Faces. Sheff's delivery is a neutral straight talk that hardly homages any of American greats (Dylan, Young, whatever). It is the instruments that create the magic. In particular, Jonathan Meiburg's vast arsenal of keyboards (Hammond, Rhodes, Mellotron, Wurlitzer) is the real protagonist of the album, penning Blanket and Crib with an epic, neoclassical feeling (underscored by a horn section), and propelling the lively Seas Too Far To Reach with the warm domestic sound of the Band. In the meantime, strings turn The War Criminal Rises and Speaks into a solemn, virulent parable a` la Warren Zevon. Rarely has alt-country sounded so varied and melodic.

Okkervil River's keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg and Okkervil River's guitarist Will Sheff also formed Shearwater (this time fronted by Meiburg) that recorded collections of subdued and romantic meditations such as The Dissolving Room (Grey Flat, 2001), that was still influenced by the spartan dejected sound of alt-country as originally inspired by Nick Drake, and Everybody Makes Mistakes (2002), that added bassist Kim Burke and drummer Thor Harris, employed vibraphone, pump organ and strings to enhance the atmosphere in the vein of Belle And Sebastian.

The new quartet achieved a supernatural degree of cohesiveness on Winged Life (Misra, 2004), a work of transfigured country-rock. The whole flows smoothly as if it were just one song, while, in reality, each song is fundamentally different: from the gentle crooning and the hypnotic ticking of the guitar in the intense A Hush to the colloquial trotting of My Good Deed, from the idiom of Neil Young's Harvest adopted in The Kind to the bluesy singing, anthemic banjo and wardance rhythm of Whipping Boy, from the sunny upbeat A Makeover to the lulling Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine. However, the second half loses steam, having to rely on mediocre melodies and a fragile monotonous accompaniment. And also the grand finale of The Set Table comes out a little half-baked.

Shearwater's impeccable Palo Santo (2006), penned with dulcimer, vibraphone, glockenspiel, harp, and banjo, was basically Meiburg's a solo album with guests. He borrowed from the gentle and romantic songwriters of the 1970s via the introverted celestial melancholy of Jeff Buckley, adding pastoral and ecological overtones. It is nonetheless a schizophrenic work. First come the fragile contemplations: the solemn and sorrowful piano-driven elegy La Dame Et La Licorne in the vein of Mark Lanegan, bookended by abstract nebulae of sounds; Palo Santo, whispered tip-toeing through delicate guitar chord reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair; the spare hymn-like Nobody; Sing Little Birdie, a country yodel so intense to evoke a religious aria from a convent; Failed Queen, an ecstatic litany worthy of Jefferson Starship's most spiritual moments drenched in the moaning and wailing of the string instruments; and the almost impalpable, feathery closer, Going Is Song. At the other end of the spectrum are brilliant songs that display plenty of verve and rhythm: Red Sea Black Sea, that could be a pulsing Brian Eno lullaby and almost seems farcical; the blues-rocking White Waves, the neurotic and bombastic Seventy-Four Seventy-Five, the martial and menacing Hail Mary, and Johnny Viola, propelled by an anthemic piano figure somewhere between a television soundtrack and Warren Zevon.

The bigger-sounding Rook (Matador, 2008), another de-facto solo album, did not quite match that magic. On The Death Of The Waters adopts the post-rock aesthetic of mood swings, with a surge into Neil Young-ian neurosis. The Snow Leopard follows suit with an almost hysterical progression. Rooks returns to the simple and stately roots-rock of Winged Life but with a twist: a shrill tone that could come out of a castrated church singer. The mature arranger shows up in the dirge Leviathan Bound, wrapping it in a blanket of violin, glockenspiel and dulcimer. The seven-minute Home Life, instead, highlights the limit of his art: too much melodrama not adequately supported by musical variety ends up sounding verbose and monotonous. Ditto for the delicate tapestry of I Was A Cloud that simply fades away without having demonstrated much. By contrast, the simpler and shorter Lost Boys, that spans several different tones of voice in just two minuts, achieves a much stronger emotional impact. So does the (finally) rocking Century Eyes, worthy of Warren Zevon.

Okkervil River's fourth album, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar, 2005), represented the best incarnation yet of their "chamber roots-rock" aesthetic. It also offered the best insight into their art's multi-layered structure. There are two stabs at a more extroverted style, the poppy and driving The Latest Toughs and the catchy and bouncy For Real. There is a second layer of songs that strike a subtler chord: the tender singalong A King and a Queen, the trotting country-rock ditty Song Of Our So-Called Friend, the lethargic, atmospheric, waltzing Missing Children that ends the album on a tone of infinite melancholy, and, towering over everything else, the solemn and almost neoclassical A Stone. Yet another layer consists of the rarified laments of In A Radio Song and Get Big that radiate the most introverted emotions. Sometimes the arrangements are the opposite of the vocals: indifferent, lazy and elegant where the singer is poignant, feverish and rough. The contrast makes for some true drama. The final layer is just one song, but an eight-minute one, So Come Back I Am Waiting. It is a narrative in which the instruments truly accompany the tortured voice as it slowly penetrates a state of terror and then awakens from it to soar in an epic act of self-recreation. Each layer shows a different facet of the project, but they all share the same existential mood, and each one contributes to give meaning to the others.

Will Sheff further enhanced his reputation as a classical tunesmith on The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar, 2007), a sort of concept that focuses on two dichotomies: the dichotomy between entertainment and reality, and the dichotomy between life and death. The opening Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe, a vehement song drenched in U2-like epos and propelled by a solemn piano figure and by tribal drums (and boasting a dissonant intermezzo), stands as the album's existential manifesto. In general, the band is a bit harsher than usual, rocking in a fuller way in You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man and especially Unless It's Kicks. The arrangements (especially the horns and strings) are carefully thought out to have the maximum emotional impact while disturbing the narrative as little as possible. A song such as A Hand To Take Hold of the Scene changes personality a dozen times in the space of four minutes, but one hardly notices (including hand-clapping, doo-wop humming, ska guitar, organ, violin).
Sheff obviously cares about what he is saying, and while he wants to make it as musical as he can, he also does not want to turn it into a baroque display of sound. Nowhere is this strategy more evident than in the mournful elegies of Savannah Smiles and John Allyn Smith Sails (that includes a sample of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B). The core of the album lies in songs such as the slow, sparse six-minute A Girl in Port that revolve around psychological analysis. Rarely has rock music touched such profound and erudite chords.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Luca Battistini)

Gli Okkervil River sono un quartetto alt-country formato nel New Hampshire, i cui due primi album, Okkervil River (2001) e Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See (2002), hanno introdotto un'inusuale combinazione di tastiere evocative (Jonathan Meiburg), ritmi forti (Zachary Thomas al basso, Seth Warren alla batteria) e una voce malinconica (Will Sheff).

Gli arrangiamenti del gruppo sono maturati in Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar, 2003). Il lamento di It Ends with a Fall si affida ad un pianoforte cantilenante, un organo gospel e archi da camera. Narrazione e parti strumentali sono intimamente connesse, come provato dalla fisarmonica e dal mandolino di Dead Faces. La declamazione di Sheff ha! un tono colloquiale neutro e schietto, che omaggia appena i classici americani (Dylan, Young o chi per loro). Sono gli strumenti a creare la magia. In particolare, il vasto arsenale di tastiere di Jonathan Meiburg (Hammond, Rhodes, Mellotron, Wurlitzer) e' il vero protagonista del disco, incastonando Blanket and Crib con un sentimento epico, neoclassico (sottolineato da una sezione di corni), e spingendo la vivace Seas Too Far To Reach con il suono caldo e domestico della Band. Nel frattempo, gli archi rendono The War Criminal Rises and Speaks una solenne, virulenta parabola sulla falsariga di Warren Zevon. Raramente l'alt-country e' suonato cosi' vario e melodico.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Antonio Buono)

Il quarto album degli Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar, 2005), rappresenta finora la migliore personificazione della loro estetica "roots-rock da camera". Offre anche migliore intuito nella struttura multi-strato della loro arte. Ci sono innanzitutto due prove di uno stile più estroverso, la trascinante e quasi pop The Latest Toughs e l’orecchiabile For Real. E poi c’è un secondo strato di canzoni che tocca corde più sottili: la tenera filastrocca A King and a Queen, la trotterellante canzoncina country-rock Song Of Our So-Called Friend, il letargico waltzer atmosferico Missing Children che chiude il disco su toni di infinita malinconia, e la solenna e quasi neoclassica, A Stone, a svettare sul resto. Ancora un altro strato consta invece dei lamenti rarefatti di In A Radio Song e Get Big, che irradiano le emozioni più introverse. A volte gli arrangiamenti sono come contrapposti alla voce: neutri, eleganti e inerti laddove il cantante è intenso, rozzo e febbrile. Il contrasto rende vivo il dramma.

Lo strato finale è costituito da un solo brano, ma di otto minuti, So Come Back I Am Waiting. Si tratta di un racconto in cui gli strumenti accompagnano realmente la voce straziata mentre pian piano si addentra in uno stato di terrore e più avanti si ridesta per librarsi in un epico atto di auto-ricreazione.

Will Sheff accresce ulteriormente la sua reputazione di compositore classico su The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar, 2007), una sorta di concept che si focalizza su due dicotomie: quella tra spettacolo e realtà e quella tra la vita e la morte. L’iniziale Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe, un brano veemente fradicio di epos alla U2 e propulso da una solenne figura di piano e da un ritmo tribale (che vanta anche un dissonante intermezzo) si erge quale manifesto esistenziale dell’album. In generale, la band suona più ruvida del solito, come si può sentire in You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man e soprattutto Unless It's Kicks. Gli arrangiamenti (specie trombe e archi) vengono attentamente studiati per conseguire il massimo impatto emotivo disturbando il meno possibile la narrazione. Una canzone come A Hand To Take Hold of the Scene cambia personalità una dozzina di volte in soli quattro minuti, ma difficilmente si nota (inclusi battito di mani, ronzii doo-woop, chitarra ska, organo, violino). Sheff naturalmente tiene a ciò che dice e pur volendolo rendere il più musicale possibile, evita di trasformalo in un barocco sfoggio del suono. Non può essere più evidente che nelle dolenti elegie di Savannah Smiles e John Allyn Smith Sails (che contiene un sample di Sloop John B dei Beach Boys). L’anima dell’album giace in un pezzo come la lenta, rada A Girl in Port che turbina attorno uno studio psicologico. Raramente la musica rock ha toccato corde così profonde ed erudite.

The Stand Ins (2008) sounds like a collection of leftovers from the sessions of the previous album, no matter how good the leftovers are. The style and the mood are fundamentally identical between the two albums, but the songs of the second are consistently less magic. The mini-epics Blue Tulip and Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel 1979 show the band at its best, painstakingly erecting an atmosphere before piercing it with arresting punch lines. Lost Coastlines and Pop Lie are the facile ditties that show how easy it has become for Will Sheff to write memorable music even when the inspiration is lacking.

Shearwater's The Golden Archipelago (Matador, 2010), creatively arranged by multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris and others, was the most soulful and baroque yet from Jonathan Meiburg. The beginning is humble as usual: the calm Leonard Cohen-ian meditation of Meridian picks up courage along the way and turns into some sort of prayer. But the bolder Black Eyes turns up a messianic tone over grandiloquent rhythm, Corridors intones a bombastic David Bowie-esque declamation over frenzied instruments, and Castaways stages a stately crescendo. This is a more assertive persona than the one who merely pitied himself on the previous albums. The music itself has a different cogency. While Meiburg howls the volatile hymn of Landscape At Speed, Harris weaves a dense and intense instrumental background. The church-like crooning of Hidden Lakes is accompanied by a ticking arrangement in the vein of minimalism. Runners Of The Sun is almost mainstream country-rock, replete with a fluttering orchestra. Meiburg's single biggest burden is the voice, which is far from exciting, and probably does not allow him to fully implement his ideas.

A vastly upgraded melodramatic production made I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar, 2011) a viable vehicle for Okkervil River to compete with the non-narrative storytellers of the laptop generation. If the martial pow-wow stomp The Valley relies on pure energy and passion, the syncopated digital soul ballad Piratess, the pulsating electronic White Shadow Waltz, and the chamber-pop mutating into disco-pop Your Past Life As a Blast belong to another era. The old era is well represented by songs grounded in roots-rock but now liberated by instrumental and computer nuances: the Bob Dylan-ian elegy The Lay of the Last Survivor; the Bruce Springsteen-ian angst shout of We Need a Myth; and finally the waltzing lament Wake and Be Fine and Warren Zevon-ian anthem Rider, both recorded live in the studio with seven guitars, two bassists, two drummers, and two pianists. Less cohesive than previous Okkervil River albums and more centered than ever on Will Sheff's personal odyssey (also the only surviving original member), this album bridged the young rootsy bard and the mature sophisticated auteur.

Okkervil River backed psychedelic legend Roky Erickson on his True Love Cast Out All Evil (2010).

Shearwater's Animal Joy (Matador, 2012) lacked the pathos of the previous Shearwater albums, partly because of relaxed arrangements (Animal Life, You as You Were), and partly because of relaxed ambitions (down to the punk-pop ditty Immaculate and the bombastic Breaking the Yearnings).

Sheff composed the nostalgic autobiographic concept album The Silver Gymnasium (ATO, 2013) and coupled it with the cleanest production of his career, thereby removing even the last vestiges of his Okkervil River's original sound. There is, as usual, a sense of dejavu running through the entire album, as Sheff borrows liberally from the classics of the 1960s and 1970s: the Band and the Hollies in It Was My Season; the Eagles and Tom Petty in On A Balcony; Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi in Down Down The Deep River; Elvis Costello and Talking Heads in Stay Young; etc. However, it is a sign of artistic genius when a musician can seamlessly merge blue-collar pathos and disco beat, as he does in Where The Spirit Left Us, and slow down the J. Geils Band's Freeze Frame in Walking Without Frankie to make it sound like one of John Lee Hooker's hypnotic blues numbers. Sheff poured his heart into these melodies and deserves respect for it.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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