Okkervil River: The Stand Ins

Joseph Carver

Okkervil River is poised for greatness and The Stand Ins may very well be the record to take them there.

Okkervil River

The Stand Ins

Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2008-09-09
UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

I saw Will Sheff twice within days of each other at South by Southwest 2008. Once, was an intimate affair at Yard Dog Gallery where, in 20 minutes, he destroyed the outdoor gathering. The other was in front of thousands of tight-jeaned, messy-haired hipsters and their girlfriends at the “it” venue of the week, Stubbs, in the headliner spot. Both events had the same result: mind-blowing performances. Now comes the new release by Sheff’s band Okkervil River, The Stand Ins. Originally conceived as the second half of a double album with The Stage Names, The Stand Ins picks up where the band left off with one of the year’s most critically acclaimed records.

The Stand Ins opens with a short instrumental track and then lights straight into "Lost Coastlines". "Coastlines" starts as a acoustic guitar and Sheff, but soon opens up to reveal the power that Okkervil River has become in recent years. Jonathan Meiburg’s voice takes the second verse, and it makes you wish that the two had approached more songs this way prior to Meiburg’s decision to part ways and focus on his own band, Shearwater. The focal point of the track is clearly the trials and travails of keeping a band together, and it is sung with love and respect. By the time Sheff re-joins the track, it's in full swing. Once again, Sheff’s lyrics are rock’s most rhythmic run-on sentences. He weaves a story in and out of verses and still manages to offer the first sing-along moment of the record when the “la la’s” end the song.

Next comes "Singer Songwriter", which intros like a Dylan song. A more direct narrative, Sheff tells the story of multiple generations of a family obsessed with entertainment. It is the tale of the ultimate insider with access and trappings who still seems a bit unsatisfied. Again, Sheff’s alliteration is tripping along. “You’ve got outsider art by an artist who arguably kidnapped the kid on the wall”, Sheff sings, somehow making you feel like this was the only way to convey his point, and not some silly poetic trick.

"Starry Stairs" will be familiar to those who bought the extra tracks released with The Stage Names. Its impact is a bit more startling here as the story of a porn star whose recognition of what her life has become is heart wrenching in a way that makes you feel guilty about your swinging hips... but not quite guilty enough to stop. "Blue Tulip" is a moment of pause in an otherwise rocking affair. Once again, the Sheff trend to open soft on acoustic is acted out. A love song of sorts, Sheff sings “Hats off to my distant hope / I’m held back by a velvet rope / As he’s behind the wall / The smoke machine has made between us” as he describes an unrequited love. The love in question is clearly that of celebrity -- the thing that the object is when he is not being real -- but the rejection is just as heartfelt.

"Pop Lie" is this record's high point. With hand claps, the raspy, near-shouted vocals, and the driving rhythm section, Sheff delivers a crushing rock moment and still manages to close it with a light ukulele strum and whispered lyric. Fans in search of the next “Real" will not be disappointed.

All of Sheff’s characters once again come to life on The Stand Ins. More stories are told from the first person than on The Stage Names, but the theme shines through. "On Tour With Zykos" as well as "Calling and Not Calling My Ex" are tales of lives long ago left for hollow. They are not unlikeable, though. There is enough residual existence in these “stand-ins” to make you feel for them. Once again, a record made up of relatively unlikeable characters becomes a fixture in your psyche thanks to Will Sheff’s ability to find the humanity in their stories. The most heart wrenching my well be the album closer, "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979". Campbell, who was also known as Jobriath Salisbery, was one of the first openly gay rock stars of the glam area. He was an early victim of AIDS, and died while still living in the legendary Chelsea Hotel. Once again, Sheff is pitch-perfect in his choice of a protagonist. Had Campbell been born 20 years later, the limitations that tormented his career could well have been nothing more than back-story. As it was, his career was mired by the inability of crowds to get past his overt gay sexuality.

Sheff is sure to see more success with The Stand Ins. It's filled with literate tales of excess, sadness and lack of substance. The ease with which life’s choices can leave us with these sad stories seems to be Sheff’s message. He refuses to mine the same territory in these tales; rather, he focuses on the moment where the trains have gone off the tracks -- if there ever were a track to begin with. I won’t be surprised if the next time I try to see Okkervil River, the tickets are even harder to come by. They are a band poised for greatness, and The Stand Ins may very well be the record to take them there. Let’s hope that Sheff’s writing has prepared him for the pitfalls that befall his characters. These choices could very well end up being his own.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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