Okkervil River’s schtick is that of the dramatic pop song, but it’s probably not the pop song you know (or love, yet). The band walks a line between the emotive delicacy of its more distant past and the fuller sound its come to flirt with on more recent efforts. They began with strong folk tones—the debut Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See is an under-recognized alt.country gem that, in some ways, categorizes parts of that genre better than any single standing effort as far as this writer is concerned. The group’s sophomore effort projected a similarly solid structure enveloped in a Phil Spector-esque psych glaze. Finally, with 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, the band’s third effort, there came a blending of these two tendencies, with Okkervil River finally achieving an album that was the sum of its parts.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Black Sheep Boy Appendix is not a mere B-sides compilation, though. Rather, it is an extension of its namesake’s themes, both lyrical and musical. Though the album’s mid-section is comprised of songs written during the Black Sheep Boy sessions, the songs are hardly throwaways, but it’s also obvious how they don’t fit on the album. It becomes clearer, after finishing Appendix, that listening to the two efforts consecutively—as if they were one—would be exhaustive, but that Appendix stands so well on its own speaks volumes for its strength. Despite the implications of its title, Appendix doesn’t seem to rely on Black Sheep Boy at all.
Will Sheff’s defeatist nature is so convincing that his songs transcend the stories of love and longing to become ghost stories, the hyperbole of the album’s anti-hero manifesting itself effectively throughout these five songs (and two instrumental interludes). This is not unique to Appendix, though this ability seems to have been strengthening exponentially with every release. “There is no escaping the thing that is making its home in your radio,” he sings on “Another Radio Song”, and suddenly radio, never inanimate if it’s turned on, becomes an enemy, almost; we enter a world where the radio is playing the songs that remind you of your worst nightmares. Sheff relays his feelings with such emotive proximity to the listener, as if he’s spilling his heart to you and only you, that every song becomes this nightmarish reflection of a disturbing real world. In this way, Okkervil River’s songs (and this one in particular) become representations of the “real world” not unlike the vertigo of Escher’s works, or even those of William Schaff, whose wonderful and frightening art appears on the cover of every Okkervil River album to date. Perhaps, then, you can judge these books by their covers, in a way.
Sheff’s performance on Appendix simply reinforces thoughts of him as one of the best living singer/songwriters, even more than Black Sheep Boy did. Sheff’s propensity for the great, shouting breakdown is displayed over and over on Appendix, creating only one piece of the puzzle that is this band’s enigmatic crescendo in all its riotous forms. To simply pin Sheff as the star of this show is not enough, though. Okkervil River, despite consistently solid output, has begun to carve its niche as a distinct and full band, not just a vehicle for Sheff’s songs.
Perhaps Okkervil’s most talent-encompassing effort to date despite its miniature form, Appendix bleeds emotion from every instrument. That it is a condensed product strengthens the feeling of the songs, the ups and downs more pronounced, accurate and not overused. Sheff’s expressionist lyrics match perfectly with what has become a near circus of instrumentation, incorporating romping guitars with the most melancholy of makeshift orchestras (including your standard strings, mellotron, harp, harmonica, and toy pianos and guitars). To say that this is the best-executed album Okkervil River has released does not mean it to be the best overall effort, but it hints at getting there: the band has deconstructed pop music so fully and brought in so many interesting elements in its reconstruction that, with every release, Okkervil River’s potential to strike down its contemporaries is building.