Growing up with a band is a rare, weird thing. It makes you feel special, and entitled, and old. For the past 15 years Okkervil River have been providing the soundtrack to our lives, so when they hit the stage at the Phoenix in Toronto this Saturday, we at Ca Va Cool feel we’ve earned the right to shout out a few numbers. Short of demanding they shut up and play the hits, here’s what we want to hear:
In Pitchfork’s review of this month’s The Silver Gymnasium, Stephen M. Deusner bemoaned the fact that frontman Will Sheff seems to have abandoned his patented rock and roll hysteria. Let’s go back to Black Sheep Boy for our fix: on “For Real” Sheff is a tight coil of manic energy, and the band backs him up on each slammed riff, egging him further into madness.
Sheff’s lyrics can be long on wit and short on feeling, but here he nails both. The double conceit–a date to a rock show, or an additional number to timeless rock songs–plays out brilliantly: he sings of “a 100th luftballoon” and “the fourth time you were a lady” with a smirk on his face and a tear in his eye.
This swoony track is still the highlight of 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams. The violins are moaning, and Sheff’s words are strung so tightly together they seem to be spilling out of his mouth. The pros know that the song’s melodrama works well: Charles Bissell chose to cover this track several years ago in response to Sheff’s near-perfect version of the Wrens’ classic “Ex-Girl Collection.”
Few musicians, save Stephen Merritt or Morrissey, ever get props for their bitchiness, but Sheff’s barbs have always been a part of the fun. Whether he’s taking aim at himself or someone else, the man knows how to cut where it hurts. This vicious takedown of wealth, image, and materialism comes complete with enough obscure references to show that he knows what he’s talking about. But in true Okkervil fashion, there’s more than just meanness going on here — there’s also the weary impotence of looking at a broken world and knowing you can’t do a thing to help.
I Am Very Far pushed the band’s multi-instrumentation fetish pretty darn close to excess, but it also gave us the first Okkervil song with a true groove. The layered tracks, weird noises, and crystal clear recording here serve to show just how sexy Sheff’s slow builds can be.
A song about a girl, true, but also so much more: child abuse, psychology, violent revenge. And set to the bounciest hook in the band’s history. The contrast between Sheff’s dark lyrics and the band’s buoyant instrumentation reached its zenith right here, with Sheff yelping out fantasies of vigilante justice. It’s everyone’s favourite, and for good reason: never before or since has the band so perfectly conveyed the desperation and bravado that accompany true devotion.
“Okkervil River Song”
Last time Okkervil played the Phoenix they closed with “Westfall,” and while that would suffice, we’re inclined to choose young love over young murder this time around. We want this track about two confused teenagers getting it on by a dirty riverbed, made sad and sweet by the swelling of tambourines, accordions, and vocal harmonies. Come and find us at the show — we’ll be the ones shouting that last line, our hands over our hearts.
Tags: Okkervil River