Friday, October 26, 2007

Water Music

…but actually, it’s a bit richer and stranger than that. Okkervil River turns out to be only one side of a peculiar and interesting coin. I knew all along, vaguely, that Sheff had a side project, Shearwater, and that I would probably check it out at some point. But I wasn’t in a big hurry. Finally, on impulse I bought Palo Santo, which was originally put out in 2006 but had just been re-released on Matador in entirely new packaging with a bonus disc and with some key songs actually re-recorded, apparently to be bigger and better. Didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but I understood Shearwater to be some kind of sedate folk outfit—an outlet for all the songs not rockin’ enough to make it onto the Okkervil records.

This, to put it mildly, was not correct.

To begin with, Shearwater isn’t really Sheff’s project, not any more at any rate. It began as a joint endeavor of Sheff and Okkervil River keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, but as Okkervil has gained attention, Shearwater has become almost entirely Meiburg’s child—and it turns out to be a wild, naked child, with leaves in its hair and an alarming expression. Okkervil River build their serious adult tunes over what’s essentially a traditionalist folk-rock framework, but Shearwater is pure art-rock—song structure and catchy tunes be damned. Meiburg doesn’t have any use for any of my traditional record-review cliches: he’s passed right over Evocative and Gripping and gone straight for Mythic. It’s still pianos and strings and horns, but Meiburg’s defiantly eerie singing—in the Buckley/Yorke tradition, but creepier—is foregrounded throughout. (If you listened to The Stage Names, that’s Meiburg’s feral wail in the background of the “Sloop John B” coda—“in the way I had planned…”)

And what’s he singing about? Well, honestly, you’ve got me, but it sounds like something very important—which for this sort of thing is what really matters. This kind of record has to work, if it’s going to work, by suggestion and misdirection and esotericism. Whether it’s Ok Computer or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—and if you know me, and you see me using those comparisons, then you’re going to sit up and pay attention—this kind of Epic Rock has to successfully seem to create a separate world, a world where something deeply signifigant is happening, even if we can’t quite tell what it is. And like Jeff Mangum’s mysterious private language on Aeroplane, Meiburg’s lyrical space is shot through with grief and loss, with missing and dead children, with grieving parents, and with a kind of elemental terror of nature, of the ocean and the sky. (The lyrics aren't printed, but apparently they were printed in the original European release, and this guy has helpfully transcribed them, if you're curious.) Palo Santo starts quiet, with just piano and an almost whispered vocal—“Something is breathing in the air / Something is moving in the water / And the winds in you are blowing.” Maybe a little unsettling, but at this point you could be excused for thinking that you were listening to a Pretty Record, if you’re even paying attention. Then, out of dead silence, a blood-freezing howl, “Bring back my boy!” And the song starts to stutter into life, but now you know that it’s real, that enormous things are apparently at stake. The stirring, scary “Red Sea, Black Sea” begins with a sinister banjo (not enough sinister banjo in the world!) and one insistent pounding drum—then Meiburg, deadly serious, tells us that “In place of the sun, In place of the moon / A terrible light will flood every room.” Something terrible is happening; this is Apocalypse Folk. Later, on “Nobody,” we hear that “the bombs finished falling / and ashes were drifting along the roads.” (This, along with the constant veiled presence of fathers and sons, makes me think both of Aeroplane and of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That novel may have come out too late to be an influence, however.) Birds and the ocean are everywhere, right from the alarming cockatiel on the cover—in fact, though I initially thought that “Shearwater” was just a mysterious, evocative name, Wikipedia will tell you that it’s the name of a kind of seabird—one that lives longer than almost any other bird. The sea is terrifying—“That splintering wave takes so many lives / And now your hands are gripping the edge of such a waste,” on “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five.”—but you can’t get away from it. And when all else fails, give a nod to The Tempest: “Took me out on the tide / To make pearls of my eyes,” in the monumental “White Waves.” (Of course that could be The Tempest by way of “The Waste Land.” There’s a thesis waiting to be written on how T.S. Eliot Rocks—pretentious singers just can’t help bringing “Prufrock,” or “The Hollow Men,” into the conversation, and I love them for it. Would have appalled the grouchy old bastard, however.)

This all probably seems a bit over-the-top. It’s just a proggy overserious chamber-folk-rock record, after all, without any of the luminous tunes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or the wit of a Decemberists record, say. But this feels like the Real Thing to me, a work of genuine vision, even if, like Aeroplane it is never successfully followed up. And then, put it alongside Black Sheep Boy, and it starts to seem like we’re looking at something Big, even if only a few of us ever know about it. Meiburg and Sheff have arrived at a peculiar symbiosis which is turning out to be incredibly fruitful. We’ll see which of them can come up with the next masterpiece. What rough beast slouches toward Austin to be born?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

River Music

The occult circuitry of the pop-culture unconscious: who can figure it out? Remember when there were two disaster movies at the same time about volcanoes? Or two disaster movies at the same time about asteroids? (That’s something we were all worried about in 1997, or whatever. Sure.) What does it mean when we have two indie-rock songs in the same year about the suicide of John Berryman? Is that a little odd?

Okay, so nobody feels bad, I’m going to come right out and admit that until last year I had only the vaguest notion of who John Berryman might be, so if you didn’t either, that’s cool. Some poet, right? Yeah, so Wikipedia told me. American poet, jumped off a bridge in 1972, considered central to the Confessional school of poetry, whatever that might be, best known for The Dream Songs. Unhappy guy. But apparently, though nobody knew it at the time, he totally rocked, because the rockers are paying him tribute. First we had the Hold Steady’s fist-pumping “Stuck Between Stations,” and now we have Okkervil River’s majestic album-closer, “John Allyn Smith Sails.”

These records came out only about eight months apart, and the bands work in different cities, so there’s no way anybody influenced anybody on this one—but it’s still right, somehow. In their own way, both bands are central to what’s happening Right Now, showing in their completely opposite ways how much can still be done with this music now that everything’s been done. And both have clearly read a lot of books. On the one hand you’ve got Craig Finn’s bruised retro-populism, just fake enough to be real (if that makes any sense.) Meatloaf with an MFA. And on the other, Will Sheff’s cracked folk grandeur—Conor Oberst if he knew about irony, Jeff Mangum if he could pull himself together. You’ve got Finn’s mordant “she said “you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life,” / And they didn’t, so he died.” And Sheff’s mournful “I knew that my last lines were gone / While stupidly I lingered on…”

Which is all by way of asking: have I talked about Okkervil River? I haven’t. Maybe I tried to make you listen to them, but I haven’t written anything yet. (For that matter, my definitive Hold Steady piece has yet to be written, too. But I’ve thought about it. It’s called “This Was Supposed to Be a Party.”) Anyway, Okkervil River are an American indie-rock band, on Jagjaguwar, from New Hampshire by way of Austin, and they’re just starting to get real attention with their fourth LP proper, The Stage Names, which is terrific.

The basic idea has remained unchanged—they started in something of a countrified chamber-folk mode, with banjos and woodwinds and whatnot, on the self-released Stars Too Small to Use and their official debut Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See (2002), but this was always a song-based band whose success or failure depended entirely on their songwriter. And Will Sheff, while his singing is spectacularly shaky at the best of times, is a real, undeniable talent, who writes not only dense hyper-literate narrative songs, but also remarkable melodies, with lines that stretch out far longer than you think they’re going to, that make you sit up and pay attention.

Down the River of Golden Dreams (2003) is where I got on board, and it’ll always be my sentimental favorite, but it’s Black Sheep Boy (2005) that was the breakthrough, an inscrutable double song-cycle that seemed to be both about a failed relationship too sad and uncomfortable not to be real, and about the title character, the Black Sheep Boy, who seems both Satanic and kind of sympathetic. And The Stage Names, while it isn’t perfect, is a mature, satisfying piece of work that deserves the attention it’s gotten.

Black Sheep Boy was beautiful, but outside of “For Real” and “Black” it tended toward the funereal—the first surprising thing about The Stage Names is how much it rocks. Guitars and drums snap and crackle all over the place—though there’s still a very solid ballad in “A Girl in Port,” and also a bit of a weak link in “Savannah Smiles.” (As far as slow-as-molasses story songs go, both “Maine Island Lovers” and “Yellow” from Golden Dreams were better.) There seems to be some kind of theme, here—as the title indicates, there’s some kind of obsession with Performance, and Artifice—but it never gets pretentious. Indeed, there’s a sly wit in these songs that Sheff really hasn’t shown before, which is very encouraging. Consider especially the biting “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” and the remarkable “Plus Ones.” That one, on paper, is a novelty song—a series of comic riffs that do well-worn numeric songs one better. The ninety-seventh tear, the hundredth luftballon, the seventeenth candle, etc. But it’s deadly serious, shot through with real life and real consequences: “the fifty-first way to leave your lover / Admittedly it doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others.”

Then, eventually, you get to “John Allyn Smith,” and you start to see how much is really going on here. For the first two minutes and thirty seconds, it’s a bitter but nimble lament in the voice of a dead poet: “by the second verse, dear friends / My head will burst, my life will end…” But then Berryman, and Sheff, make that leap—and something happens. The song slows down, and shifts to a different, simpler rhythm. A new melody suddenly bursts into being, as the dying Berryman remembers his own father’s suicide—“I hear my father fall / I hear my mother call…” But you think I know this tune, what’s going on? and then it hits you. Weirdly, impossibly, we’ve landed in a bleak alternate version of “The Sloop John B,” that old Beach-Boys-approved folk chestnut. It was always sort of mournful for a Beach Boys tune, anyway, but now it’s been alchemically transformed into a literal suicide note. This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Then a squeal of feedback, and The Stage Names surges to the finish line, as you realize—oh, wait, John B, it all makes some kind of weird impossible sense—and guitars and drums spill out some miserable guy’s last thoughts: I feel so broke up / I want to go home. Yeah, exactly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to Save The Universe

…oh, you thought I meant me? It’s true that I haven’t done this for a while. I’m a fragile, delicate flower, as you may know, and it’s been a good stretch of months since I felt like I could really write anything except the occasional email. Just wasn’t going to happen. And on top of all the suffering I know that this caused all six of you, or whatever, it was an especially bad thing since I’m supposed to be writing a thesis. But now, with the semester just about half over, I feel like I’m getting it back. Got up at 5:30AM yesterday and wrote a philosophy paper, which is so out of character that it’s in fact alarming. Actually wrote some pages today about Macbeth—my chosen thesis topic; don’t ask—and that was an enormous relief. Wrote a decent little scene for screenwriting class. Got a gold star. (She really gives gold stars, and when you crave approval as I do, this is no laughing matter.)

And now, just in time, I can write about the Event That Will Shake the Music Business to its Core, and Change Us All Forever. I’m referring of course, as you can tell from my title, to the peculiar unveiling of In Rainbows, Radiohead LP #7. You’ve heard about this. (It’s free, you know!) Internet only, for now. Sticking It to The Man, i.e. iTunes. (Didn’t Thom Yorke used to have an Apple sticker on his guitar?) Pay what you want. We ride tonight. We hope that you choke. Etc.

Since you’re asking, I gave them £5. Or “bob.” Or “quid,” as we call them. Which worked out to about ten bucks—seemed reasonable to me. Now that I’ve gotten through it one and a half times, I feel like maybe owe them a few more bucks.

Yeah, yeah, I’m a sap, you say. A fawning fan-boy. But you know, it was great to feel like that again, even for an hour and a half or so. It’d been a while. They’re the special case, you know? This enormous presence for a decade now, but somehow insular and unapproachable. None of the bands that have tried to sound like them are any good. (But, Matt, you own three Coldplay albums, I hear you saying. Yes. Yes I do. And they suck.) They don’t really sound like any of the bands that supposedly influenced them. They’ve always been exactly themselves—and I, and probably anybody bothering to read this, would be an entirely different person if OK Computer, say, did not exist.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little excited, and also plenty ready for disappointment. Because that’s the fear, isn’t it? You hear that they’re putting it out themselves, untouched by hand of record company, and you’re always half afraid it’s going to turn out to be their Jazz Odyssey. Twelve minute songs about fair trade, or the Kennedy assassination, or something. I dunno, accordions. (Actually, that would probably be good.) Especially after the long delay—you had to wonder what we were in for.

But so far, I’m really happy with it. It’s certainly not a dramatic departure from anything but a marketing standpoint. Nobody who’s listened to Hail to the Thief or The Eraser is going to be shocked by anything here. But it’s all assured and dense and powerful and not boring for a moment. There aren’t even any noodling experiments like “Treefingers” or “Hunting Bears.” It’s ten songs, start to finish, and they’re rock songs, all of them, with melodies and beats. It’s Radiohead, of course, so the beats are nervous, stuttering, and often counted with odd numbers, and the melodies are plaintive and unsettling—but that just makes the moments of sweetness, like the ravishing “All I Need” stand out more. “Nude” is the spooky child of “Sail to the Moon” and “Pyramid Song.” “Bodysnatchers” has an eye-opening “Paranoid Android” riff. “Faust Arp” (uh, great title, guys) carries on in the dizzy, word-drunk mode of “Wolf at the Door,” though it isn’t that sinister because nothing is. In the end, In Rainbows is icy, sharp, and bracing. It’s the middle of October and it’s been 80 degrees where I live for weeks, almost creepily summerlike, but today it was fifty, and damp, and I walked around in the wind and felt like I could breathe again. This album sounds like that.