Music Reviews
Black Sheep Boy

Okkervil River Black Sheep Boy

(Jagjaguwar) Rating - 7/10

Will Sheff's protracted bio of Okkervil River makes one thing pointedly clear. Why this band has been touted as another name on the list of "singers who write like novelists", if we are to believe the New York Times, that is. Their chronicle is, at times, self-consciously Kerouacian and, just in case we hadn't got the picture, their favourite people include Borges, Faulkner, Henry Miller, Proust, William Blake, Buster Keaton, Guiseppe Arcimboldo, and 'The Incredible String Band'. Well, gosh, were do they find the time. With three precursors to this album under their belt, we can only assume that there's not a lot to do in Austin.

Kicking off the record is the title track, a Tim Hardin cover that provides the thematic skein upon which this album hangs, that the "Black sheep can wear the Golden Fleece". A happy/sad, bittersweet, simple refrain that at one minute something is a tantalising but ambiguous opening that leaves one with little idea as to the tone of what will follow. Are we to expect a throaty, angst-ridden, drawl or a heartfelt, introspective plectrum-wank (maybe that's where the Proust comes in)? As it happens we get something of both, but happily they compliment each other and what could have been a somewhat pedestrian end product is invigorated by some refreshingly caustic lyrics. Human emotion is couched in atavistic imagery, in "real blood... real cries". If you're starting to think we're getting a bit Sheffian (this is the only album we know to name-drop the Abecedarians) and that we're just looking for an excuse to use the word atavistic then check out Black. This fraternal, protective tribute to a damaged girl features "if I could tear his throat, spill his blood between my jaws" and "Don't you realize that I wouldn't pause, that I would cut him down with my claws".

This last is, perhaps, the strongest track on the record. If somewhat formulaic, it has a compelling dynamism that makes it stand out amid tracks that sometimes sound self-indulgently husky and lugubrious. Sheff's voice is at its best when giving vent to the hoarse roar that prevails here, not that he ever sounds lacklustre, it's just that, occasionally, he sounds like he's making the kind of music Counting Crows have wet dreams about. Having said which, Sheff can also do lovelorn, singing of the "smell of moonlight wisteria" and spurning the "lover who brought fresh bouquets every day" for "some knave who once gave just one rose".

These are essentially songs of innocence and experience tinctured by world-weariness simultaneously infused with an earnest lack of guile. A brief criticism would be: a little more sound and a little less fury, please Will. The second half of the album sounds like a bit of a hiatus with little to alleviate it. On a final note, from dyed in the wool CD hoarders, William Schaff's nightmarish artwork ceases to seem incongruous alongside the sinister undertones of Okkervil River's lyricism.