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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Okkervil River - I Am Very Far: B+

In the relatively short while that I have been listening to music, I have never heard of a band that has received as many positive accolades but has conversely come off as indistinct as Okkervil River do on their newest album, I Am Very Far. On it, for the most part, these Texans sound like a less charming Franz Ferdinand, lead singer Will Sheff’s smoky swell of a voice a clear reference but a significant step down from that of Alex Kapranos. The instrumentation of I Am Very Far supports this characterization with understated arrangements that are heavy on bass and acoustic guitar, allowing for Sheff’s vaguely clever ramblings to emerge center-stage. “Piratess” is a slinking bass-led number that is executed well, but I can’t listen to it and not think about how well it would fit on Franz’s 2009 album, Tonight. Listening to much of I Am Very Far, it’s hard not to be reminded of that group and think of how much better they could have made these largely modest songs.

When Okkervil River don’t sound like a conservative Franz Ferdinand, they gravitate toward the styles of other aught’s stalwarts as opposed to establishing their own. They sound like a tempered Arcade Fire on “Rider” and The Walkmen on “Hanging From a Hit”. While sonically pleasing, it’s a wonder why I don’t just put on the records of those very same bands instead of listening to this.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact “Okkervil River sound” based on I Am Very Far, but there are some indications that don’t immediately hearken back to groups established six or seven years ago. “White Shadow Waltz” is an eccentric taste of avant garde theatrics, Sheff emoting the rather strange line “The doorbell is ringing / Go see who it is” amidst crashing sound effects that seem to underscore a cryptic narrative. “Rise”, the album’s closer, begins with an unsettling call-and-response between Sheff and himself that devolves in a hackneyed flailing of piano and drums. These tracks seem to define Okkervil River as a band that prefers the dense and cinematic, and, for the most part, these elements work in their favor. However, this is not the case with “We Need a Myth”, a song whose ethos I could imagine being sung by a sloganeering politician in a musical. The repetition of the song’s title becomes tedious quickly and becomes a strain on an already tenuous premise. “We need a massive lift,” Sheff sings at one point in the song. And a myth is supposed to do that? The song gives no indication of sarcasm other than its inherent theatricality, so its thesis comes off as disingenuous. If untenable bombast is supposed to be these guys’ trademark, they need to give their songs more space for the humor to make itself known.

It should be a testament to the inconsistency of I Am Very Far that its best track does not even adhere to the sound established with “White Shadow Waltz” and “We Need a Myth”. “Wake and Be Fine” is a quirky number, interchanging guitar and piano notes while Sheff preaches a catchy vocal melody before descending into an instructive chorus that encourages the suggestion in the title. It’s a really good song, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on I Am Very Far, an album that starves for a clear focus. Okkervil River don’t seem to have a defining quality aside from a singer who can’t help but come off as sloppy and a musical technique that implies one of the guys probably went to Tufts. I Am Very Far is produced well and has some truly excellent moments, but it’s too uneven, more of a transition record than a unified statement.


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