Okkervil River I Am Very Far(Jagjaguwar) Buy it from Insound
Okkervil River is a band perhaps best characterized by their layered sound and through-provoking lyrics. They have been using every orchestral instrument you can name since their debut, and the literacy of Will Sheff, the mastermind behind just about everything you hear on any Okkervil River album, permeates the lyrics as deeply as it does the band’s name, taken from a short story by Tatyana Tolstoya. But as the work of a mastermind, it’s no surprise that after five albums and six EPs that the sound on I Am Very Far takes a new direction. And when Sheff states that "I found myself wanting to not be accessible and not be crowd pleasing and basically be self-pleasing and follow what I thought was really interesting,” we immediately know what he is talking about.
There are good songs here: Sheff’s lyrics remain, for the most part, as intriguing as ever. But quality songwriting is buried in an overproduction and over-arrangement, and the same techniques are used to cover-up the weaker tracks, instilling a sense of monotony despite ambitions. The result is, from opener The Valley, an album that is trying too hard for a grandiose sound and too often falls short of that mark. Considering Okkervil River is more than proficient with strings, horns, and winds, it’s quite a surprise to see ambition be the downfall of their album. Tracks like Rider show that they are certainly capable of creating a thrilling, urgent rock song with all these elements. Similarly, there is a desperation in We Need a Myth that climaxes powerful crescendo that instills a feeling of importance and “us against the world” that has a hopeful lookout behind soaring, layered vocals. But Piratess and Lay of the Last Survivor seem more calm than grandiose, and while this may be by design, it then serves only as a poor pacing to a scattered album, and loud, full choruses suggest laziness and leave only a feeling of being unfulfilled. The result between these two possibilities is a lack of confidence that causes the album to stutter where it should be stepping forward confidently and to trip over itself when taking a step back to look around. Too often in I Am Very Far, we find that the emotion is gone or simply overwrought to the point of being isolated, the catharsis underwhelming, and too many similarities between songs.
Essentially, I Am Very Far is a series of attempts at an epic, full album. It is, as the title suggests, a far cry from favorites Black Sheep Boy and Down the River of Golden Dreams, lacking the emotional punch of both those albums and instead pursuing a sound more like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, but falling far short of that bar. The album is not without its moments, and closer The Rise and White Shadow Waltz show that when Sheff’s grandiose songs hit, they are as good as anything the band has recorded. But such occasions are too infrequent to justify an album with such inconsistent songwriting. And while the album’s ambition and highpoints might warrant occasional listening or suggest a noteworthy achievement, repeated or close listening, especially on the album’s slower, longer backside, exposes the album’s weaknesses and will leave listeners reaching for the band’s backlog. While it is more realized than previous effort The Stand Ins, Okkervil River is showing potential for new direction more than they are showing versatility.1 December, 2011 - 09:18 — Forrest Cardamenis