Austin has long been the musical home of the fine singer songwriters and fiery Texas blues rock following the lead of two legends, Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, respectively. This fine tradition lives on through young artists like Ryan Bingham and Gary Clark Jr, but Austin's presence continues to also grow in the indie pop world.
Okkervil River and their leader Will Sheff have made a series of strong acoustic-centered pop records since they formed in 1998. The band released its first full length in 2002, and have met rising critical acclaim with each succeeding album. Their latest effort I Am Very Far marks what could be chapter two in their young career. Sheff describes the Okkervil River's which proceeded this latest release as "a very set-in-stone idea that I set out to make exist," but that wasn't the goal here. I Am Very Far was recorded at different locations and different situations so that each track could stand on its own. Sheff describes the process:
[T]he way that we’ve worked on records in the past [is] holing up in the studio and just going completely insane working. There’s a certain point where it starts to feel like a day job, [and] in some ways that’s kind of a sin, to feel that way about something that’s supposed to be this really sacred thing to you.... [S]o for that reason I thought why don’t we completely move around – it was something like six different studios in the end – go all over, and every time we would try a completely different technique.... [E]very single time it was like we had torn up the formula by throwing some different challenges in there, so you came into the recording sessions and you were really really excited, whereas in the past I was so holed up I was almost losing my interest in doing it.
After one listen to I Am Very Far, there is little doubt that Sheff succeeded in upping the energy dynamics. Like Spoon, their fellow Austinites, Okkervil River channels early 80s Britpop - not the typical MTV types, but Rockpile and Elvis Costello. Those bands always came to the table with a wink, a sneer, and a healthy dash of intelligence. I Am Very Far provides a kinetic enthusiasm of Costello's Get Happy which was released during that era.
"The Valley" kicks off the record with a jarring sound for anyone used to Okkervil River's more acoustic sound. "Piratess" follows with a distinct 80s sound like something out of a John Hughes movie. Phil Spector would be proud of "Rider" which brings it own "wall of sound" to the proceedings. Beyond the high energy tunes, there is still a healthy bit of soulfulness with songs like "Hanging From A Hit" in which Sheff's vocals are supported more than ably by Atlanta's Beth Wawerna of the band Bird Of Youth who Sheff is producing.
The 80s produced a great deal of schlock, but Okkervil River does a fine job of getting the best parts of it down. Costello, XTC, and even 80s Robert Plant - "Show Yourself" gives the same moody vibe as Plant's "Big Log" - are present on this ambitious cycle of songs. Okkervil River even does its Brian Wilson best on the album's heavily orchestrated closer "The Rise."
Like Athens GA in the 80s, Austin now serves as a musical magnet for pop in our region. Originally from New Hampshire, Will Sheff has found a home in Austin making pop records with Okkervil River. I Am Very Far stands as a strong follow up to their 2010 collaboration with the legendary Roky Erickson. Erickson's unpredictable nature has rubbed off on the band. The future seems wide open now.
- Jim Markel