The Austin boys in Okkervil River are back with another album and like always it’s filled with surprising stories, dense lyrics and great tunes that stick with you. The Stand Ins sees the band explore the issue of stardom and fame from different perspectives including those of groupies, porn stars, ex-boyfriends and ageing pop stars.
Few bands reference pop culture like Okkervil River do. The Stages Names’ “John Allyn Smith Sails” told the story about the end of poet John Berryman’s life and “Plus Ones” referenced a number of different songs from the likes of David Bowie, Nena and R.E.M.. The Stand Ins instead touches on the life of Jobriath, a failed glam pop star from the ’70s, in “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”, and continues the story of Shannon Wilsey’s troubled life. On the last album we heard from the mother or father of Wilsey, a porn star that committed suicide, in “Savannah Smiles”. This time over singer and lyricist Will Sheff gives Wilsey herself a voice in the beautiful “Starry Stairs”. With phrases like “Safe behind a TV screen/I let them pry, pick apart and hang up to dry almost every piece of me”, you can’t help but be moved. The horns suit the subject perfectly and give the piece a touch of sleazy soul.
“Blue Tulip” and “On Tour with Zykos” both focus on the issue of groupies, a topic which the band had previously explored with “A Girl in Port”, but like “Starry Stairs” the perspectives have been changed. “…Port” was from the rock star’s viewpoint; now the groupies get to have their say. Both songs showcase Okkervil’s more subdued side, displaying a gentler pace with a predominance of piano although the guitar solo in “Blue Tulip” is spine tingling.
“Lost Coastlines” is more up-beat, featuring a bouncy bass line and a guiding melody, and definitely the highlight from the first few listens. The duet, between Will and former keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, is captivating and is supposedly about the band evolving without Jonathan who left to focus on Shearwater. There can be no better way to part than this. Despite an engaging narrative about fame and pretention “Singer Songwriter” intially grates, the accompaniment seems too dense and layered, and the country influences are a bit overwhelming. However upon repeated listens it begins to make sense and the harshness of the song dissipates to the point that it may one day become one of the stand outs of the album… that is if the shimmer from the “Lost Coastlines” ever fades.
The Stand Ins, Okkervil River’s fifth full length album, is very much the companion to last year’s The Stages Names. According to Sheff the band first envisioned The Stages Names as a double CD which might not have been such a bad idea as while this disc does stand by itself if you take away the three instrumental interludes, which are all under a minute and more a teaser of what could have been, you are only left with eight songs. Create a playlist of your favourites from The Stages Names and The Stand Ins, create your own track order or hit shuffle, and you’ll have one killer album.