Release Date: Sep 9, 2008
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
This Austin quintet follows 2007’s The Stage Names with a second tour de force about the collateral damage of fame. Under the surface of The Stand Ins’ lavish arrangements lurk harrowing portraits of such real-life casualties as the glam-rock singer Jobriath (”Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”) and the porn-star suicide Savannah (”Starry Stairs”), plus the nameless, spurned lovers of those in the spotlight. We’d say Okkervil River should be famous — but on this evidence, maybe they’re better off producing their classics from the sidelines.
River’s level continues to riseThe cover of 2007’s The Stage Names featured a hand waving outstretched toward an embroidered, sunburst sky, basking in the glow of celebrity exposure. But the album periscoped into the masks and corroded identities of fame’s situation from its post-cinematic preamble to its tailpiece chantey for poet John Berryman.The Stand Ins' cover now dives beneath, revealing the skull-headed hand-owner who (as real film-industry stand ins do) supports the performance without getting to see the lights himself. This thorny relationship is conceptualized, schematized, scrutinized and historicized on The Stand Ins through characters like glam-rocker Jobriath and a now-famous actresses’ pining ex-boyfriend.
The Stand Ins is Okkervil River’s continuation of the concept they brilliantly mined on last year’s majestic The Stage Names. The same super-literate storytelling methods and themes of fandom, stardom and everything in between are still intact here as are the bands bright textures and production style. The Stand Ins is a solid achievement cut from the same charming cloth, even if it doesn’t crisp in quite the same way The Stage Names did.
Okkervil River's 2007 breakthrough, The Stage Names, reflected singer-songwriter Will Sheff's urge to create a record that stood alone in a world of "empty and dismebodied" pop culture. The follow-up depicts pop music as a creatively and morally bankrupt abyss of egocentricism and empty fads. However, only someone who truly cares about pop could loathe it this much, and the frustrated love Sheff puts into every Motown bassline, soaring brass section and uplifting chorus means the songs sound inspiring, not bleak.
Okkervil River's 2007 almost-masterpiece Stage Names presented a vivid dissection of the "Silver Screen," both literally and metaphorically as filtered through the crowded, cerebral library of bandleader (and one-time film student) Will Sheff. 2008's Stand Ins doesn't just complement Stage Names (which was originally conceived as a two-disc package), it completes it. Opening with the first of three mini-instrumentals that sound like a mash-up of Bill Frisell's Nashville and Radiohead's Kid A, Stand Ins revisits many of the central themes (loneliness, failure, hero worship, and broken love) that bounced around the set of Stage Names.
A year removed from 2007’s blog-tastically acclaimed The Stage Names, Okkervil River is back with its sequel, a collection of songs drawn from the same recording sessions. Think of it as a lit-rock Use Your Illusion II. While The Stage Names jettisoned much of Okkervil River’s former folk and orchestral-pop leanings, The Stand Ins leaves the door open to its roots, from now-former member Jonathan Meiburg’s ringing banjo opening “Lost Coastlines” to the appropriately Highway 61-leaning “Singer Songwriter,” a biting and brilliant takedown of the artistic leisure class.
The problem with Okkervil River's appendix to last year's The Stage Names is that where the predecessor is a polished and fully realized affair, The Stand Ins doesn't really figure out what it wants to be until its second half. While "Lost Coastlines" features a lovely back-and-forth between singers Will Sheff and Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg (his swan song with Okkervil), it and subsequent tracks "Singer Songwriter" (loose-limbed and fun-loving) and "Starry Stairs" (smarmy) don't fit. After a brief instrumental interlude, "Pop Lie" and "On Tour With Zykos" finally feel truer to the energy and tone of The Stage Names, the latter's bitterness tempered by lovely layered harmonies and instrumentation.