These former New England high-school friends came together in 1999 to play their own brand of scruffy folk-rock, and had been releasing well-received albums on the respected indie label Jagjaguwar since 2002, but it was with the release of BLACK SHEEP BOY in 2005 that the band's reputation grew. An original song cycle built around a cover of Tim Hardin's classic tune, the album is a spiky, sparks-giving confluence of frontman and primary member Will Sheff's anguished vocals and haunting, sometimes delicate, punk-folk tunes that tell the story of an outcast's redemption. It topped critics' lists, was followed by an "appendix" EP that furthered the theme, and established Okkervil River as a serious songwriting outfit.
This record dynamites the moss-covered castle walls of 2005's "Black Sheep Boy" to let in the glaring sun. Riddled with characters real and fake, with the relics of high culture and the crumpled up trash of low culture, "The Stage Names" is a cinemascopic take on the meaning of entertainment in the modern world. Reverberant with echoes of Motown snap and girl group pop, redolent with ripe whiffs of dirty rock 'n' roll, shining with the shimmy of Bo Diddley, with the shimmer of the Velvets, with the swagger of the Faces, and with a glittery sprinkling of cheap perfume to disguise the stink, "The Stage Names" is a relentlessly paced and ruthlessly thrilling journey.
On their debut album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, Okkervil River invoked Otis Redding's "I’ve Got Dreams to Remember" in a late-album sweep of drama. Here they take the closer, "John Allyn Smith Sails," and spin languidly into verses from "Sloop John B," with tattered, ragged horns invoking Neutral Milk Hotel. Singer Will Sheff re-asserts his primacy as the best mid-range, lyric-wobbling howler as he pleads, "I feel so broke up, I wanna go home." But you don't have to wait until the ninth track to get the point: Okkervil River has grown yet again, weaving mandolin twang with pump organ wheeze as they name-check the Byrds, "99 Luftbaloons," and Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," all in the first two minutes of "Plus Ones," and then embracing sad-sack heartbreak amidst pedal steel on "A Girl in Port," a mere four tracks after the distortion-laden guitar riffage of "Unless It's Kicks." Hyper-literate, musically accomplished, and keenly aware of dramatic sweep, Okkervil River continues fulfilling the promise inherent not only in each of their prior albums but also in the enthused throes of passion marking Okkervil's colleagues, Arcade Fire and Decemberists and Bright Eyes. A brilliant work, The Stage Names. --Andrew Bartlett
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