Okkervil River – The Stage Names
Released August 7th, 2007 on Jagjaguwar Records
Okkervil River may be indie rock’s perennial “mid-level band” (as they refer to themselves on “Unless It’s Kicks”) but The Stage Names, their fourth album, they burst up above the clouds to briefly take their places among the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. This is not a reference to any hits – there are no hits, a criminal shame in itself – but instead to pure songcraft, the perfection of a crafted album and the wry, self-reflective poetry of frontman Will Sheff. Their previous album, 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, came close to the indie-rock mastery present here, but they would never again achieve such heights (although 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium comes kind of close). Unlike Black Sheep Boy there is no explicit concept (that album was an exploration of the life and death of junkie-poet-folkie Tim Hardin); however, there’s some pretty clear themes running through The Stage Names that make it a sort of meta-rumination on Sheff, the band, and the nature of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. If the album could be said to be about anything, it’s about the cheap theatricality of populist art, and the complicated narratives that we spin around simple people.
We think of our lives as films, with narrative arcs and neat endings; “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” posits that there is no such thing. Sheff sings that “It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax” and teases here and there that are moments that make one think that their life could be a movie, if you looked at them sideways in the magic hour that begins twilight. “Unless It’s Kicks” is an admission that the narrative created by the consumer of art bears no resemblance to the author’s intent (and here we go rehashing that argument again); “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s fiction,” he asks, “Unless it’s licks, man, unless it’s lies or it’s love?” and then implores a fan “with their heart opened up” to take warning about believing your own lies. Those lies – the narrative we impose tyrannically on the anonymous textures of everyday life – are important, because they impart some meaning onto the ultimate meaninglessness of existence, but if we believe in these lies too fully we risk trapping ourselves in an unrealistic narrative that can crush us if it’s revealed to be too much of a lie. “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” is about the slick and vicious nature of some of those lies; Sheff buildings the lyrics out of scenes from television shows that Okkervil River’s music has been featured in, including a Cold Case scene where a serial killer picks up a male prostitute, kills them, and buries them in a remote, rocky area. “Savannah Smiles” shows the flip side, being about Shannon Michelle “Savannah” Wilsey, a pornographic actress who swallowed her own narrative so completely that when she was disfigured in a car accident she killed herself rather than face a life without being her illusory, created self. “Plus Ones” takes aim at our mad frenzy to keep the story going, to churn out sequels and franchises in order to never end the imposed narratives we’ve become obsessed with. “A Girl In Port” likens the travelling rock ‘n’ roll band to being sailors with girls in every port, only the girls in port for rock ‘n’ roll bands are acting out the dictates of the (usually false) mythology that builds up around bands. “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” bridges the gap between the narrative of youth and wealth and the reality of age and starvation for artists; “Title Track” tackles the illusion of stardom head-on with an eye to it’s utter absurdity. The final song, “John Allyn Smith” sets sail, tracks the life and suicide of poet John Berryman, a doomed artist who was something of a muse in 2006-2007 as he was referenced by a number of others, including The Hold Steady on Boys And Girls In America. It examines the mythology of the poet versus the sad, sordid reality (alcoholism and suicide attempts) and caps it off with a rendition of the traditional “Sloop John B” that feels more like suicide note than the raucous ode to debauchery and hangovers it usually is.
The album that came directly after, 2008’s The Stand-Ins, would be a sort of second half of The Stage Names, but would not be as successful in mining it’s themes for frisson; The Stage Names still remains Okkervil River’s crowning achievement. I first fell in love with it on a bus trip; I was going north to help close down the family cottage and on the bus ride I had enough time to listen to two albums. I ended up listening to The Stage Names twice, entranced by it’s lyrics, it’s melodies, and the way that the two combined to run goosebumps up and down my arm. Ten years later I still sing along to every word and, if pressed, I’d probably place it in my twenty favourite albums.
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Released July 7th, 2007 on Merge Records
There are days – many of them – where I feel like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga might low-key be my favourite album. It is, at the very least, an album that I can throw on at any time and be perfectly comfortable with it being on. It’s hard to pick out a favourite moment, too, since they all seem so great. Is it the brash horns on “The Underdog”? Is it the line about doing an airborne and settling in for the night (like there’s any settling after one of those)? Is it the tube reverb that makes the guitars on “Don’t Make Me A Target” such a delight? Is it the relentless snare in “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”? The slinky, blatantly sexual bass line of “Don’t You Evah”? Being a slut for the New York Times? Maybe it’s the way the album seems sculpted to perfection, with every string, guitar, horn, and drum beat in exactly the right place. It exudes confidence and bleeds charisma.
If there were any true justice in the universe, Spoon would be as big a band as the Rolling Stones, but instead they’re as big as LCD Soundsystem, which counts for something. They would go on to release three more albums, of which only the last (this year’s brilliant Hot Thoughts) comes close to equaling the meticulously grooved music presented on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Built To Spill – Perfect From Now On
Released January 28th, 1997 on Warner Bros.
Doug Martsch attracted major label attention for his Boise, Idaho band Built To Spill on the basis of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, the group’s second album. That album was full of light and whimsy, comprised of solid indie pop songs overflowing with nostalgia and good vibes. Upon signing to Warner Bros. he decided instead to concentrate on squalling, lengthy epics more in line with vintage “Cowgirl In The Sand”-era Neil Young. While this is not precisely recommended behaviour for a band that just inked a major label deal, Perfect From Now On is the best Built To Spill album by a country mile. The follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, was as concise as Perfect From Now On was sprawling, and after that Martsch put out a series of solid enough albums that showcased moments of brilliance but could mainly be described as “workmanlike”.
Perfect From Now On, though, is a heady trip. Gifted with the same deft touch for screaming, grungy lead guitar that J. Mascis put to such good use ten years prior, Marsch and the band hover and strike like stoned professionals. The leadoff title track is a textbook exercise in how to craft a rock song that seems made to be heard in the moon’s gravity. “I Would Hurt A Fly” is Built To Spill at their moodiest, turning cliches on their heads and getting close to snapping at that noise you’re making. “Velvet Waltz” and “Kicked It In The Sun” both glide by on skates in the cloud, built on jams that flirt with singularity and then reform in more solid states. The closer, “Untrustable,” snaps that dreamy melodies that dominate the rest of the album into solid focus before switching to an almost carnivalesque instrumental jam that closes out the album in a weirdly Elephant Six fashion.
The album was actually recorded three times; what you hear is the final form of these songs after being jammed out again and again. The first time Martsch played everything except the drums but was unsatisfied with the results. The second time the full band played and while the producer was driving from Seattle to Boise to record some further takes the master tapes were destroyed by the car’s heater. Thus the album had to be recorded a third time, the end result being that the songs were as good as they were going to ever be. In 2008, between albums, the band took Perfect From Now On back out on tour, acknowledging the indisputable high point of their catalog.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Released May 13th, 2016
During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear. Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.
Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised: a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion. Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people. “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole. It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets. The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place. Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails: he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it. He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.
Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent. He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas. Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape. It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”. Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive. Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book. They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.
Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al. He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else. In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.
AND THE REST…
Always Strive And Prosper
04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music
The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.
04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records
Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP. As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.
04/22/2016 on Carpark Records
Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part. In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs. While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact. Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.
Plants And Animals
Waltzed In From The Rumbling
04/29/2016 on Secret City Records
A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue. Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.
Paging Mr. Proust
The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career. Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.
The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album. It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old. At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.