Pop Addict: Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Okkervil River: I Am Very FarOkkervil River: I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar, 5/10/11)

Okkervil River: “Wake and Be Fine”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Okkervil-River-Wake-and-Be-Fine.mp3|titles=Okkervil River: “Wake and Be Fine”]

Austin indie-folk band Okkervil River has always been pretty bookish. With lyrics that read, more often than not, like poems or short stories, Will Sheff and company have penned some of the most evocative and menacing lines in contemporary music.

From the haunting storyline of “Westfall” on the band’s 2002 debut, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, to the wistful longings of “For Real” and “Black” on 2005 standout Black Sheep Boy, to the sing-along chorus of “Lost Coastlines” from The Stand Ins, Okkervil River has crafted poetic, imaginative, visceral, and oftentimes harrowing tales. But the band’s appeal doesn’t begin and end with the lyrics. Instead, Okkervil River provides a vast arsenal of instrumentation and musical sensibilities, covering a barrage of genres within the indie scene. And with I Am Very Far, the band’s latest effort, those trends continue with much success.

The band wastes no time getting started. Opener “The Valley” hurls you into a foot-stomping rumpus of suspenseful strings, buzzing acoustic strumming, and towering percussion — all backed by Sheff’s unique, panicked vocals. Even though the album isn’t an overt concept album — a tactic that the band has toyed with in its past few efforts — the songs nonetheless bleed into one another, creating a cohesive harmony of musical direction and aim. Standout tracks like “Wake and Be Fine” and “White Shadow Waltz” show a band reaching its potential, adding another chapter to an already impressive catalog.

One reason why I Am Very Far is so strong is because Sheff rarely holds back. Though recent Okkervil River releases have featured mellower songs, I Am Very Far is content to stay in the fast lane most of the time. And even softer songs, like “Hanging From a Hit,” do anything but deplete the album’s potency. This is a credit to Sheff’s poetic lyrics and concrete imagery as well as the track’s musical buildup, which explodes in the last couple of minutes, just before the dust settles again in a gentle collection of harmonies and brass.

But the album’s success moves well beyond showing ferocity. There are other interesting elements at work here. “We Need a Myth” plays with mid-song key changes; “Piratess” experiments with start/stop time signatures; “Show Yourself” sounds like a completely different song at the end than it does at the beginning. Okkervil River is adamant about keeping you on your toes, no matter which style the song employs.

I Am Very Far’s title is a fitting one. Nearly a decade on the scene, the band has become a staple in indie music, becoming one of its most consistent and reliable bands. If the album title isn’t meant to pat itself on the back, it should be. Few bands are able to achieve in entire careers what Okkervil River can in the span of one album. And I Am Very Far is a testament to that.

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