Friday, January 15, 2010

Amber Valentine, One Woman Will Sheff Appreciation Society: Boil It First on the Importance of Okkervil River.

To quote the most recent blog by fellow Boiler Zach Braun, "When it comes down to it, music is truly the only thing I've ever been obsessed with". I hate to quote Zach all the time but he says a lot of things that I wish I said and to be honest, I can't think of a better way to start this blog than with that quote. Despite the fact that I'm a full time writer and some time dancer, what my life has revolved around for as long as I can remember is music. My writing? Well, it's usually about music. And dancing? Well, you can't do that very well without music. I was introduced to music and what it would mean to me when I lived in Missouri. I was somewhere between the ages of four and five and saw a clip of The Beatles performing "Please Please Me". In a lot of ways, after that, John Lennon became the gravitational pull of my creative existence. I had memorized his entire catalog by the time I got to middle school when I was promptly introduced to a bevy of indie musicians who held Lennon in the same esteem that I did.

In the time between now and then, I've been introduced to a lot of musicians that mean a lot to me but in recent months, it's become apparent that no one affects me quite like Will Sheff, front man of Okkervil River. It's strange to me that a band I only became familiar with in the past few years would mean so much to me. I've been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith, and various incarnations of depressed-Jesus-freak-turned-bummed-out-atheist David Bazan for anywhere from ten to fourteen years. Compared to that, the fact that I've been a fan of Okkervil River for a mere five years seems like nothing. So what is it about them that at once makes me feel like less of a singular freak and feel as if I'm going to come slightly unglued?

I once wrote an article on the top 5 prettiest men in indie rock. 3 of the 5 men on this list read the article, resulting in much flustered blushing on my part but Mr. Sheff took the much-coveted award of being number one on the list. My explanation as to why follows:

"There are two important points you must know about Okkervil River's Will Sheff. First off, pictures cannot capture the beauty of this man. You must see Will in person to fully understand how captivating he truly is. Second off, I've met some musicians in my day that I've been listening to alot longer than Okkervil River, who have affected my life in alot grander ways than Okkervil River but for some reason, meeting Will Sheff turned me into a small, whimpering fan who could barely string a sentence together. Calm, tall, composed and extraordinarily together, Will Sheff is the type of unattainable guy you admire from afar, always wondering what it would be like to know such an intruiging man all the while understanding he's far, far out of your league."

Looks aren't everything though and to be honest, I didn't know what Will Sheff looked like for months after I first fell in love with Okkervil River. Once I did see a picture of the band, I was under the impression for quite a while that Sheff was Okkervil River's-other-vocalist-turned-Shearwater-frontman Jonathan Meiburg (Don't worry, kids, I'm sure a Shearwater appreciation post will come soon). The fact of the matter is that Okkervil River is the entire package: Well crafted songs that are as chilling as they are catchy, a singer who sounds as if he's about to loose it at any moment, and beautiful, haunting album art.

What really got me about Okkervil River, however, was the lyrics. Some people, when first listening to a song or an album, notice the music, keeping a keen ear tuned to the speaker to dissect chord progressions and discern what instruments were used to create the melody. I, however, let that go by the wayside until a repeated listen because what matters to me are the lyrics. Anyone with some real life lyrical prowess usually appeals to my better nature, particularly if I can relate to the sentiments involved.

Wordy and literary, Sheff's lyrics are earnest, heartfelt, and affecting and no one writes tragic female characters quite like him. In fact, I could easily make a mix cd consisting only of songs that revolve around the troubled girls of Sheff's world, most of which are written through the perspective of the girls themselves. In fact, my music blog got it's title from a line in "Starry Stairs", the b-side to The Stage Names which found a second life on Okkervil River's 2008 album, The Stand Ins. "Starry Stairs" is about Shannon "Savannah" Wilsey, a porn star who shot herself in the head after a disfiguring car accident. (Wilsey got her name from the 1982 movie "Savannah Smiles" - Yep, that aforementioned Okkervil River song's about her too.) The song is strangely seductive and almost sort of empowering and the first time I heard it, before I knew what it was about, I decided that when I die, I want my epitaph to come from that song: "Oh, what a hot half life I half lived."

The fact that Sheff penned a song that affected me so much that I wanted it engraved on my headstone didn't shock me at all. From "It Ends With A Fall" to "A Stone", Okkervil River's catalog is peppered with songs that have, at one time or another, orchestrated a specific moment in my life. None, however, has done this so well as "Red".

My relationship with my mom is a rocky one, to say the least. I know that I have a prowess with words but even I can't sum up my relationship with my mother in less than a novel. Somehow, though, Sheff managed to sum up not only that but a good portion of my life in the third verse of "Red" with the lines "I know it’s easy to have me, but I have seen some things that I can’t even tell to my family pictures, and I’m full of fictions and fucking addictions, and I miss my mother."

What it comes down to is the fact that I'm passionate about Okkervil River, so passionate, in fact, that I feel that anyone who doesn't like Okkervil River simply hasn't been introduced to them in the right manner. I've made quite a few stellar "Introduction to Okkervil River" mixes in my day and my most creative "asking a boy out" ever consisted of me making him one of such mixes with detailed liner notes that included a proposition of a date.

Is it true that every person with good taste is destined to become a fan of Okkervil River? No. I understand and accept that. But the fact that I believe that Will Sheff, Scott Bracket, Patrick Pestorius and company have such an appeal, which might speak more as to what a passionate person I am than how talented of a band we have on our hands but I surmise that it's not just me: It's Sheff's lyrics, it's William Schaff's artwork, it's Bracket's trumpeting, and it's Pestorius's jovial post-show drinking (Seriously, find me someone who hasn't met Patrick and subsequently drank with Patrick. Please.). And I didn't even cover Okkervil River's copious amounts of "murder songs"! Or the fact that Sheff once stabbed a man! If that doesn't pique your interest on Okkervil River, I don't know what will.

Amber Valentine is the girl behind The Hot Half Life and the Features Editor of TRACER Magazine. When she set out to write this blog, she meant for it to be about Roky Erikson's forthcoming LP, which features Okkervil River as his backing band. She clearly got distracted.


  1. Pairing Roky with a sympathetic backing band of this quality should only yield excellent results. My optimism is guarded because I fear that too many wrinkles may get ironed out of Mr. Erickson in the process.

  2. I disagree! Granted, Okkervil River's most recent two efforts, the double album with the 2 discs released a year apart from each other, was glossily produced but I think that phase is done with and they, as a band, are going to return to their strength which is what was heard on Black Sheep Boy - Orchestrated but still raw. I feel as if Sheff, in addition to being a dang good lookin' gentleman, is a pitch perfect producer so his efforts in song writing, production, and as a member of Erikson's backing band is going to yield some ace results. I mean, even if it blows, it'll still end up on my best of 2010 lists just for Sheff, Pestorius, and Brackett's involvement.

  3. I certainly hope so, because I liked OR better a few releases back. I want this, badly, to have "the spook." It's a matter of waiting now.

  4. I still don't like Okkervil River all that much, but this blog is pretty freakin' good.

  5. Thank you, Z.B.! I still say you have the potential to be an Okkervil River fan. You just have to hear the right material.

    Dan, I agree with you completely - While I LOVE The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, I find myself almost never listening to anything off the latter, despite the fact that my blogging namesake is featured on the album. The Stage Names was, in my opinion, just the right amount of Sheffian darkness and glossy production for them to "break through" and win over a significant amount of fan and critic respect but regardless, Black Sheep Boy (and the album's appendix, which served as a minor masterpiece and features one of my favorite songs of all time "Another Radio Song") is nothing short of gripping, epic, beautiful, and perfect. I do think the band did the greatest thing they'll ever do with that album. Black Sheep Boy came from a very real place in Sheff and it's evident. I don't think you fantasize about killing your ex's current lover in song unless you really feel that way. Plus, can we just talk about how gut wrenching the song "A Stone" is? That's one of those tunes that can make me cry like a baby no matter what mood I'm in.

    I got a little distracted there but point is that older Okkervil River was better. I hope on the band's next album, Sheff takes the production reigns and that he doesn't let the fact that he's in a happy relationship with the cute lead singer of Bird of Youth keep him from writing songs about 1- the misery of relationships, 2- murdering women, and 3- the fact that deep down, he knows him and I should be together.

    ...I'm normal, right?