Okkervil River has become a supremely self-assured live act, in no small part because frontman Will Sheff has shed his tentative vocal delivery—a trait which often made the Austin band’s early work sound wobbly instead of fragile. Accordingly, the band’s studio output reflects this increased confidence; last year’s The Stage Names was a nuanced amalgamation of shuffling folk, rustic indie rock and vulnerable jangle-pop. The Stand-Ins—a companion piece to Names in tone and content—is even more sophisticated. Although there’s plenty of deep-fried Texas twang to go around (“Singer Songwriter,” the Old 97’s-esque dust-kicker “Lost Coastlines”), highlight “Starry Stairs” is reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s orchestrated work with Burt Bacharach; tasteful horns and jazzy syncopated rhythms match Sheff’s laid-back, conspiratorial murmurs. Plush organ buoys “Blue Tulip,” while Sheff sounds like a broken, weary soul atop lounge-act piano during “On Tour with Zykos,” which depicts the ennui and heartbreak of romance (and band life) from a female’s perspective. “Pop Lie” is even better, a brisk keyboard rocker which channels The Hold Steady by exploring the artifice and easy conflation of the musician versus the characters of his songs—and what happens when fans catch on to the so-called “lie.” Predictably, such complex lyrics make The Stand-Ins feel ponderous (and even a bit pretentious) at times—but there’s no denying that Okkervil River is one of smartest, most articulate bands around today.
Annie ZaleskiThu, Sep 11, 2008 (midnight)