It’s tough to maintain “indie cred” when a band’s vocals are too refined, too mellifluous. How can you stay on the cutting edge of the alternative rock scene when you sing well? Such successful front men as the whiny Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, the ever-cracking Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade, or the high-pitched Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have chosen to avoid the question entirely.
But Will Sheff, lead singer and songwriter for the Austin, Texas-based Okkervil River, has managed to combine polished vocals with an indie sound on the band’s latest album, “The Stand Ins.” Rather than cast down his guitar and shake his fist at Bob Dylan (the pitchy genius who started it all), Sheff has cemented a place in the alternative scene, and sounds good doing it.
With understated vibrato, Sheff evokes the frontmen of yore, twanging through verses like David Byrne, soaring through choruses like Bowie. The vocals set the stage for an album of retrospection, compositions looking back to the glory days of folk rock.
Sheff has been praised in the media for his lyrics, critics lauding his songs as short-story-like — the name Okkervil River in fact comes from the title of a story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. His verses in “The Stand Ins” are almost too clever, but are good enough to still merit more than a few smiles of appreciation. A turn of phrase that comes to mind is one in “Singer Songwriter,” sung joyfully over the sounds of slide guitar and overdriven organ: “You’ve got taste, you’ve got taste/ What a waste that that’s all that you have.” Many of Okkervil River’s cuts feature this interesting dichotomy — angst-ridden lyrics set to catchy folk melodies.
Sheff does, however, understand the effectiveness of a well-timed pause. One successful conceit of the album is that of three short instrumental tracks, titled “Stand Ins,” parts One, Two and Three. They serve as intermissions, segmenting the album into three “acts.” This is only fitting for a group whose work is so rooted in storyline and performance. These breaks give Okkervil River’s listeners a chance to soak it all in and cleanse the palate for the next course. The band hits its stride in the final tracks of the album. The last five tracks, starting with “Pop Lie” and ending with “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979,” demonstrate Okkervil River’s talent to its fullest. Styles change from celebratory to contemplative, energetic to somber, all imbibed with Sheff’s signature sly lyrical sneer.
But where Okkervil River falls short in its latest release is in trying to do too much. As engaging as the lyrics are, they often get lost inside the overwhelming instrumentation. Most of the tracks start out sparse, with banjo plucking or a few modest piano chords. Without fail, each grows in the following measures to become a full-bodied wall of sound, in turn drawing attention away from Sheff’s words.
Maybe, though, this is a necessary evil. The band’s orchestrations are complex and imaginative, using synthesizer effects, horns and even sleigh bells to demonstrate an impressive versatility. Even when the vocals lean to the pop side (gasp!), and the chord progressions lapse into cliché, the instrumentals keep Okkervil River on the cutting edge.