Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

okkervil-river_the-silver-gymnasium

Rating: ★★★½ ·

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of seeing these local darlings play some of their vast, now seven full-length albums deep, catalogue. While I was originally there to hear my favorites from prior releases, I was soon treated to several new songs off this release, The Silver Gymnasium, which got me excited to hear the rest of what Will Sheff and company of Okkervil River had to bring to the table this time around?

First to reach your ears is single, “It Was My Season,” which has this band doing what feels right for their little niche of folk inspired rock music coated in darkness. Some campy piano bursts onto the stage, joined together with Sheff’s unmistakable voice, and like the opening number in a musical you actually want to see, you go right along with Okkervil River as they take you down that path “all that time ago” into a tale of past love. The song picks up, to culminate into a full-blown chorus that should have you stomping along with them in a springier step then you may imagine. At the end of the four and a half minute track, the band leaves you on a nostalgic level, simmering down and letting you self reflect for a bit right before they launch into the next song.

While the first three songs on this record serve as a nice little trio of goodness to start of the record, you can notice a bit of a drop off after this point. There are still some good tunes awaiting you on the latter half of this record, they just don’t immediately grab you on your first listen through. Take “Walking Without Frankie—” second to last, the song starts with a rolling drum beat, and continuously builds upon itself, with Will Sheff twisting his storytelling lyrics around the music that keeps being added upon in the background. It gives the sensation of the tide rising; one moment you are taking note that the water is getting closer to you and the next it is upon you, with cymbals crashing in a frenzied finish.

And as simple as that, this band has added yet another number of songs, albeit not all of them, to add to your list of favorites. Some may argue that this album lacks the bleak bitterness of age and time that you would expect from a band that has been around for quite a long time now, but I think the youthful spin on The Silver Gymnasium is a turn in a good direction for Okkervil River; the darkness is still there, just waiting for you to find it.

New Music from Lovestreams (Will S. of Okkervil River)

Sadly, it seems that Okkervil River is on the back-burner for the time being, with Will Sheff going out on his own as Lovestreams.  He just announced that he’s going to be releasing a new solo effort under the moniker at an as yet to be determined date.  He’s offered the first listen up to the misses, which noticeably has his trademark guitar hiding, being traded in for electronic soundscapes.  Luckily, the literary writing approach is still ever-present, which is one of Will’s most endearing qualities.  We’ll keep you posted on more news as it comes our way, but for now, tell us what you think of Will’s new jam!

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/shock-corridor.mp3]

Download:Lovestreams – Shock Corridor [MP3]

Okkervil River – I Am Very Far

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Anytime you get an Okkervil River album, you know that you’re going to be in for a quality listen.  Carefully orchestrated songs are wrapped in dense lyrics, though we’ve grown accustomed to some sort of thematic representation on each album–not the case here, though that’s irrelevant in the long run.  You can see sort of a re-imagining of the band’s sound, as I Am Very Far goes much further than the territory previously danced around on earlier works.

You open the record with a bit of noise teetering, but it’s the hard-hitting echo of the snare that brings in the song, just as Will Sheff begins his discourse.  One of the elements that will immediately stick out is how far the production and orchestration has come since the early days–just take a listen to the string arrangements and piano pieces added for textural purposes. As you begin to take your journey with I Am Very Far, you get what seems like a much more playful Sheff, in so far as his vocals hit varying ranges.  He opens with a bit of an off-key croon, which provides a bit of swing to it all, though the greatest quality of the past that seems to return is the raw edge of his vocal, scratching at your ears; this has been a quality he seems to have put to rest with recent releases like The Stand-Ins and The Stage Names.

What’s surprising this go round is how comfortable Okkervil River seem on the gentler tracks throughout this collection.  In the past, they occasionally came across as afterthoughts, or pieces that fit the greater story, but stripping thematic story lines away apparently has allowed for songs like “Lay of the Last Survivor” to take the spotlight.  Here you have a completed song, something where the finer details fill out the empty space, giving more depth rather than just rely on Sheff’s unique voice.  “We Need a Myth” similarly gives the band room to elaborate on the sound of the unit as a whole.  Piano topping strummed guitar with echoed vocals really allows for the song to make its mark, moving the band’s sound further than many have come to expect.

And by this point you’re half way through with your listening experience, and it can only get better, remarkably.  “Your Past Life as a Blast” may not sound entirely like Okkervil River, but that’s precisely what allows for this record to really make a statement as to where the band stands currently.  Even the single from I Am Very Far, “Wake and Be Fine,” has a ferocity to it that we haven’t seen a whole lot from the group, with Sheff’s vocals coming off a lot more forceful, while the rest of the group keeps things balanced.  Be sure you don’t skip the closing moments of “The Rise,” perhaps one of the shining moments in all of Sheff’s writing career.  It all stands to say that this is a band that we thought we knew well, and we thought we knew just what to expect.  But, a few tweaks to the system have created a record that is very far from where the band seemed to have been, giving us all an entirely new Okkervil River to enjoy over and over again, down the river of golden dreams.

FT5: New Austin Music Icons

0403top5cover1As we are well into the year 2009, it’s time we take a good look at what makes the Austin music scene work so well.  We’d like to say that it’s us, but we know that a whole lot more goes into the scene than the many writers and fans in the city limits.  Instead, we turn your eyes to those Icons, those heralded heroes of our town; the ones that make it all run so smoothly.  Be it a musician or producer, these are our favorite Austin Icons.  We also excluded those who made Austin music famous, and then left the town for not-so-better waters. Yea, I am looking at you Britt Daniel! Why did you leave us? Just for that, you aren’t an Austin Icon; these next five characters are!   Not only that, but these aren’t your grandparents Austin Icons.  This isn’t Stevie Ray playing guitar, nor is this the Janis playing at Threadgills; these are your new Icons, paving the way for the new artists and the new scene!  Follow the jump for our top 5 new Austin music icons.

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New Tunes from Will Sheff

We all love Will Scheff and his band Okkervil River, but Will recently released a split 7″ with Charles Bissell of The Wrens. Will covers The Wrens “Ex-Girl Collection” while Charles covers Okkervil’s “It Ends With a Fall.” The release is already out in stores, but if you want, you can head straight over to Jagjaguwar Records to purchase your very own copy. 

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/ex-girl-collection-the-wrens-cover.mp3]

 Download: Will Sheff – Ex-Girl Collection [MP3]