This Is an Essay About Okkervil River. Kinda.
DISCUSSED: accelerated culture, Okkervil River, Webster Hall, Now That’s What I Call Indie Rock!, Radiohead, balloons, "Sloop John B," plus ones.
Will Sheff at Webster Hall by this guy
by Bret Gladstone
Earlier this year, there were scads of online buzz about the This is Next release of a Indie's Biggest Hits Vol. 1 Review compilation series. Naturally, bloggers found this incredibly funny and interesting. One reason for that was because the idea raised obvious questions about how to define an already laughably vague genre-distinction. Another topic was the irony of how most of the bands reportedly selected for the record had already traveled the undulating curve of e-hipster appeal several times over. Finally, the whole concept seemed to confirm what everyone already kind of knew: Given that the term “indie” is now a construction built on manufacturing cool and selling records, the genre really isn’t that different from pop music at all.
Let’s put it another way. The truly pathetic thing about independent rock’s ostensible “tastemaking” class—they of the forums and the asymmetrical haircuts and heavy black glasses and pork pie hats—is that they can only seem to define themselves in opposition to what they hate. The inevitable irony, of course, is that this all winds up being sublimated self-loathing. As far as corporations are concerned, there’s no real difference between those “hipster” tastemakers and the “yuppie” “pop” fans they despise. They’re just two very clearly delineated and stylized target demographics.
It’s not exactly clear when or how “hipsterdom” and “indie” were welded together into one vaguely “anti-establishment” entity. But they have been, and ultimately that culture is made obsolete by the very technology it uses to distance itself from the “mainstream.” No matter how it writhes and searches for ways to stay “ahead” or “outside,” there is no “outside” anymore—the speed at which information travels necessarily sucks everything into the vortex of popular examination, instantaneously codifying, fetishizing, and commodifying those ideas. As an “anti-popular” ideology, independent rock has been effectively neutered, not enabled, by accelerated culture. So the fundamental problem facing what used to be “indie” artists becomes this: How do we retain any kind of affective honesty or joy while engaging accelerated culture on its own terms—as a social, commercial, and mimetic reality?
The variety of ways in which this anomie gets approached is the essence of what makes today’s rock music so ridiculously interesting.
For example: If Radiohead lives up to their billing as the most important or influential group in modern rock, it’s partially because they’ve been the smartest and bravest in engaging supersonic culture head-on. Just as the dichotomy of technology and the living body is grotesquely embodied in its name, that tension is also brilliantly staged on nearly every level of Radiohead’s sound— in the grand struggle between Yorke’s choir-boy voice and his band’s noise; in the tension between traditional rock instruments and an array of electronic accompaniment, and ultimately in the content of its lyrics— especially in their dogged insistence on acknowledging the music as a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace, with “dollars and cents,” “pounds and pence.” Yorke never lets the listener forget this fact. But the moments when he can aesthetically transcend those constraints are all the more chilling as a result.
An alternate response to acceleration has been the retreat into neo-traditionalism. One of the main reasons artists like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan (as well as their artistic progeny like Jack White) aren’t obsolete is because they were at peace with acceleration before it ever became a reality. Formally and aesthetically, they concede pop music as a medicine show rooted in fiction and theatre. They see themselves fundamentally as entertainers, and use characterization, melody, and traditional form to get at “truth” through their respective facades. Basically, (flouting the postmodern anxiety of influence) they reject outright the idea that just because everything has already been done it can’t simply be done again better. As a result, they’re not just good enough to play by the rules of the game and still come out ahead. At their best, they can seem to be turning those constrictions into artistic advantages.
Somewhere between these two approaches lies Will Sheff, one of the “latest toughs” in indie-rock’s new battle to find its soul within information culture. Months later after This is Next, his (predominantly) Austin-based band Okkervil River released The Stage Names—a wonderfully dense, elated album which boasts a more carefully woven tapestry of indie signifiers than any compilation disc could hope for. The record runs as the confluence of those sounds, and they were all on display at Webster Hall this month: the lovely, baroque swell of Neutral Milk Hotel; the pounding keys and howling ghost harmonies of the Arcade Fire; Modest Mouse’s deranged twitch; Spoon’s jagged, mechanical pop-precision; touches of countrified twang and new-wave throb, and, anchoring it all, a keen sense of melody and bookish phrase-turning akin to those of Conor Oberst and Colin Meloy. Whew. Okkervil can shoehorn an impressive amount of those references into a single song, and Sheff’s voice—equally fit to howl, growl, croon or swoon—anchors the paroxysms perfectly. A couple Fridays ago at Webster Hall, the music was most thrilling when Sheff conceded to throw his vocals around the room, letting his band drunkenly heave and crash behind them.
As Okkervil River has processed that zeitgeist, they’ve also become a prism of its dominant tropes and ideas. And this is where the real charm of the new album lies. Filled with self-reflexive images of “scene” and subculture, The Stage Names describes a kind of indie-rock limbo—a world of “plus ones” and “mid-level bands,” of “rock and roll ghosts” and “cheerless mezzanines” “stinking with charm.” What’s refreshing about Sheff’s lyrics is that he employs those mass-produced images far more frequently as mimetic devices than as tools for irony and ridicule. As a result, he can find connection and intimacy where more cynical songwriters find despair.
Like Webster Hall, for example: a venue for blog-buzzed bands which doubles as a pop dance-club for the Bridge and Tunnel crowd. Dressed in swank suits and sporting stylishly tousled haircuts, the band looked more the part of the hip New York outfit than long suffering “mid-level” rockers. Sheff, donning a skinny black tie and sculpted black bangs which swept dramatically across his face, could have passed for Ryan Adams’ doppelganger. At times, the band’s show seemed to be a study in how actively they could engage the surrounding scene without being consumed by it. Contradiction is the beating heart of hipsterdom, and Okkervil River revels happily in it. Small surprise, then, that its set began with “Plus Ones”—a pretty ballad lampooning the convention of mopey balladry. “No-one wants to hear about your ninety-seventh tear, so dry your eyes and let it go un-cried my dear,” Sheff sang…
I am all out of love to mouth into your ear
And not above letting a love song disappear
Before it’s written.
No-one wants a tune about the hundreth luft balloon
That was seen shooting from the window of your room
To be a spot against the sky’s colossal gloom
And land deflated in some neighbor state that’s strewn
With ninety-nine others.
Abandoning the apocalyptic loam of Black Sheep Boy, the better part of Sheff’s weary contempt is now directed at the hipster novelty of weary contemptuousness—a point so smart-ass and “meta” as to be worthy of contempt itself were it not for the Barthelmesque elegance that anchors his satires. The Stage Names is brave enough to go after those kinds of postmodern ironies. If it succeeds, it’s because it does so with less cynicism and more generosity of spirit. Ultimately, some of Okkervil’s dourest critique runs pleasantly together with its most doe-eyed sentimentalism. Even the night’s most stirring acoustic ballad (“A Stone”) bore the vague traces of scenester indictment:
You love white veins You love hard grey The heaviest weight The clumsiest shape The earthiest smell The hollowest tone You love a stone
The greatest testament to Sheff’s songwriting isn’t the amount of metawatching he does, but the fact that his music is still uplifting and elegant despite it. A minor miracle, considering that self-awareness is the most crippling force in postmodern art. Usually what they create is apathy. Instead, there’s a lot of joy in Okkervil Rivers’ music, and a good part of this owes to the charmingly crafted imprecisions of its players. Armed with a circus-trunk of blaring trumpets, shambling guitars, sharply kicking drums, thumping piano phrases and a few abstract touches of lap steel, accordion and mandolin, the band worked up a drunken clatter that could bound, crash, and sway excitingly around Sheff’s words, but also retained a quiet delicacy in his softer ballads. As an encore, the five-piece swelled the death-letter “John Allyn Smith Sails” into a terrifically messy treatment of “Sloop John B.” “I’d like to start this one off by saying live and love,” Sheff sang.
That’s a difficult line to pull off in the blogosphere, for sure. But the challenge of putting it over is practically what defines this band’s new music: If anything, The Stage Names is about rediscovering joy within the soul-numbing world of over-saturation.
“What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks man?,” Sheff howled earlier in the night…
unless it’s fictions, unless it’s sweat or it’s songs? What hits against this chest unless it’s a sick man’s hand from some midlevel band?....
What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan
Floating up from the stands with her heart opened up.
I want to tell her your love isn’t lost
Say my heart is still crossed
Scream you’re so wonderful
What a dream in the dark
At that point, the band didn’t even seem too bothered by the house music that had already begun to throb sexily through the balcony lounge. For their own part, neither did the plus-ones.