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.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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