Album Review: The Stand Ins by Okkervil River

The Stand Ins is Okkervil River’s fifth album, a sister album to 2007’s The Stage Names. A week of relentless listening later, I’m struggling to describe it – possibly because I’m writing this as someone who has spent much of the last year listening to music that slips into easily definable genres. The Stand Ins has floored me slightly. If you’re a devoted Okkervil River fan, then you probably needn’t read this review, because you’ll have opinions enough of your own, but if you’re less familiar with their music, then read on.

The band’s myspace describes their sound as ‘folk-indie-rock’ – lets not dwell on the folk aspect. (Apparently the occasional employment of a banjo and mandolin is the only requirement to call yourself a folk band – I’d like to dispute this.) Regardless, it’s worth a listen.

My first impressions of the album were that is was going to be a tough one to get in to. I’d like to borrow the words of one of the many reviews already written about The Stand Ins – “melodramatic” and “mopey” say The Rolling Stone. Arguabley, this strong statement is valid – it is certainly not an uplifting record. The underlying theme is of cynacism – cynacism about the fickle world of pop music, bitterness about the success of your ex girlfriend. However, this album has a surprising ability to get under your skin – catchy songs such as Starry Stairs and Pop Lie stick in your head and make you want to sing along – exactly the actions that subject you to the condemnation of lyrics such as “You’re lying when you sing along,” and the scorn posed at the woman who “wasted her love on the liar who lied in this song”.

This theme reccurs in On Tour With Zykos – an expose of the reality behind the fantasy of finding love – “How come I shout goodbye when God knows I just want to make this white lie big enough to climb inside with you”. The lyrics are touching and seem to be born from experience, but it’s uncertain whether lead singer Will Sheff is describing the pain of being the victim or once again scorning those naive enough to be on the receiving end of his actions.

Regardless of whether you see The Stand Ins as a series of crude observations or a piece of extreme self indulgence, it works well as a collection of songs to stick on in the background. Choose to open your ears to the lessons that it preaches and you get twice as much for your money. Just do so at your own risk.

Words: Mary Liggins