Okkervil River – More to the story
Musically, the Appendix is at once easier and tougher going than Black Sheep Boy. With its abbreviated running time and ambient interludes (“A Garden”, “A Forest”), and the firm framework established by the melancholy opener “Missing Children” and the cinematic conclusion “Last Love Song For Now”, it doesn’t demand as big a commitment from the listener.
“But sonically and lyrically, it’s pretty dense,” admits Sheff. On the latter half of “Another Radio Song”, words spew ceaselessly out of his mouth. And to a musical palette that already includes pump organ, trumpet and mandolin as a matter of general practice, plus a penchant for strings, the band expanded its ranks to accommodate harp, Mellotron, and, for the frantic finale of “Last Love Song For Now”, sixteen pairs of clapping hands.
Recorded on two breaks between tours, the EP came together quickly. It had to. “I tried to throw every single idea I had on there, even if it was really complicated and labor-intensive, and just plow on through, without stopping to consider if it was a good idea or a bad one,” Sheff says. “Like saying what’s on your mind to somebody so fast that you can’t take it back…or going up and talking to a pretty girl at a party before you can chicken out and convince yourself she’ll never be interested in you. Yeah, like that…but with excessive hand-clapping and string parts.” (And, really, isn’t that what true love should always sound like — a Phil Spector production?)
The quick construction of the EP was also a response to the album’s painstaking creation. In the promotional materials for Black Sheep Boy, that process is recast as the Frankenstein myth, with returning producer Brian Beattie (whom Sheff cites as a primary influence on how the band structures its ambitious arrangements, while also integrating subliminally subtle textures) running cables and hiding microphones throughout his home studio, and everyone meticulously grafting parts on to their cherished creature. Indeed, the gunshot power chords that interrupt Sheff on the album’s second song, “For Real”, are as jolting as the lighting bolts that animated Boris Karloff.
Oddly enough, all that nitpicking didn’t translate into a fussy final product. From the ramshackle drums of “Black” and the world-weary waltz-time pulsing through “A King And A Queen”, to the interplay of dissonant brass and sinewy strings on “A Stone”, Black Sheep Boy is suffused with an air of barely contained mayhem. This, Sheff says, is largely accidental, a spillover from the making of Down The River Of Golden Dreams, augmented by his inability to assimilate influences in a timely fashion.
As one might expect from someone has spun two records off inspiration derived from a single song, Sheff usually obsesses over a small number of albums during any given stretch of time. While he and band member Jonathan Meiburg (who also plays in Austin band Shearwater) were in San Francisco doing the bulk of recording for Down The River in 2003, the records at the front of his consciousness were far removed from the romantic, sun-kissed disc Okkervil ended up with as their third full-length.
“I was listening to things like Tonight’s The Night and Exile On Main Street and Third/Sister Lovers, by Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and Big Star,” he says. “Albums that had this rock ‘n’ roll, bravado-in-the-face-of-chaos element to them. Down The River didn’t end up sounding or feeling like that at all, but Black Sheep Boy did. Then again, there were certain things musically I was thinking about on Black Sheep Boy that I didn’t realize until Appendix.”
This is a prime illustration of how the Okkervil aesthetic has unfolded since the band’s out-of-print (“and justifiably so,” Sheff claims) 1999 debut Stars Too Small To See. One project bleeds into another, albeit not always in such an obvious fashion as with the Black Sheep records. For example, making of the 2004 five-song EP Sleep And Wake-Up Songs, which has a much gentler, tender character than the LPs that bookend it, allowed Sheff the freedom to confront some of the particularly dark characters who awaited him down the road.
“I let myself go almost kind of soft rock, be less aggressive, and more contemplative on that one,” he explains, “because I knew — although nobody else did at that point — that Black Sheep Boy was going to really rock, and be ugly and raw. So I could make this little record that is, in some respects, mellow and complacent, and not thoroughly emotional, because I was going to turn right around and cut my chest open on the next one.
“The trajectory of any artist, especially a rock musician, is that you go from your raw, angry stuff to your complacent stuff. But I’ve always liked, and fancied, the idea of periodically turning your back on a certain thing. Down The River is about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. So to whip around after that, and make an album that is about not forgiving, and being pissed off, was exciting to me.”
At its current rate of production — five records in four years — Okkervil River shows little sign of slowing down. Which suits Sheff fine; he aspires to a sizable catalog. “I’ve always liked writers like William Faulkner, or songwriters like Neil Young or David Bowie, where they have such a large body of work that it is almost more helpful to talk about this record or that novel than it is to talk about their work as a whole,” he says.
Besides, an idle mind is a playground for the devil. For all his fascination with the lives and work of troubled souls such as Hardin and Nick Drake, Sheff seems determined to keep ahead of the depression and addictions that fell many gifted artists. Almost to a fault, in fact. During their most recent stretch of North American dates, Sheff contracted strep throat, drummer Travis Nelson fractured his wrist, and their van suffered two different high-speed blowouts on the interstate. Only after Sheff was diagnosed with bronchitis did the band finally cancel a single show.
“I didn’t intend to martyr myself on the altar of my supposed musical career, but that’s what seems to be happening,” Sheff jokes…before breaking into a coughing fit. Still, his conviction is such that one has little trouble imagining he’ll be back in fighting form after some bed rest and hot broth. Okkervil River have many a record yet to make before Sheff resigns himself to the last act of recycling: becoming food for worms.
ND contributing editor Kurt B. Reighley lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.