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.