New Hampshire native and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff is not egotistical, just self-aware. The fact that he has chosen to create two full albums centered around the trials and tribulations of life in the music business reflects how serious he is about contributing to it. It was with last year’s The Stage Names that Sheff began to hone in on his own situation, how life as a touring musician and member of a self proclaimed “mid-level band” is not as magical as portrayed in the media, and how the media relates to reality and vice versa. As the album cover suggests (see cover of The Stage Names) The Stand-Ins is a continuation of these concepts. Both through the music and content of the album, it feels like an extension of the former.
With The Stand-ins, Sheff continues to set himself apart from the pack as one of the best songwriters around. Sheff has the ability to craft songs both lyrically and musically through the strength of his imagery and the moods he creates. His voice passionately accompanies the words he writes, almost too passionately for the genre of music, but never goes overboard. Okkervil River is a band that transcends so many contemporary and classic sounds through instrumentation and lyrical content that it makes it hard to pinpoint them as just one style. It is alt/country with a tinge of classic rock, and some traditional folk, all accompanied by emotive lyrics that never annoy.
The album begins with one of its strongest tracks, the bouncing “Lost Coastlines,” in which Sheff and former bandmate Jonathan Meiburg (now solely of the once joint side project, Shearwater) duet in a sarcastically exaggerated look at the process of touring and living life on the road. The song paints a gloomy picture of how Sheff and Meiburg view life; as an extended metaphor of an old time cruise on the rocky seas. Additionally, among the many subjects found on the album, Sheff pokes fun at the feigned sorrow of the singer/songwriter “Singer Songwriter,” tears the common pop star to shreds “Pop Lie,” and analyzes the tragedy of fame “Calling And Not Calling My Ex” “Blue Tulip.”
The album is certainly not an example of Sheff’s very strongest songwriting, but only in comparison to his earlier works does this even become noticeable. Like always, Sheff’s words fill your mind with all sorts of vivid images and tricky wordplay, really forcing you to think. It is not easy to understand an Okkervil River song, but once you get it, you get it. “Blue Tulip” is probably the best example of Sheff’s talents on this particular album. In the song, a slow building piano and drum driven ballad, Sheff conveys the heartbreak of losing a friend to the wicked world of stardom, and with such sincerity, that is hard to tell that he may be making it all up after all: “Hats off to my distant hope\I’m held back by a velvet rope\and he’s behind the wall the smoke machine has made/between us.” If any man can convey a certain emotion with the combination of words and voice, it is Sheff.
Okkervil River hardly ever disappoints, and The Stand-Ins is further proof. With each listen, one can take more and more away from the songs, and that is the show of a truly great album. In combination with The Stage Names, The Stand-Ins makes for another riveting release from the Austin rockers.