The Antlers – Green To GoldStandard
Round-Up, Mar 5th – Mar 11thStandard
My Hand Is Not For You To Hold: Smoke Ring For My Halo Turns 10Standard
of Montreal – I Feel Safe With You, TrashStandard
Arab Strap – As Days Get DarkStandard
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Interstitial Burn-Boy BluesStandard
Stuart watched the kid shake and mutter to himself in the seat across the aisle. His skin looked waxy in the dingy interior bus lights, and Stuart was sure that if he reached across and caressed the kid’s forehead with the back of his hand that skin would be near to scalding. He ran his tongue along the back of his teeth and watched the kid carefully. No one else in the general vicinity seemed to be concerned. Stuart noticed an old man dozing in the seat behind the kid, and a young couple murmuring to each other beneath a blanket in the seat ahead of him.
Aluminium: 10 Years of The Stage NamesStandard
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.
Aluminium: 10 Years of For Emma, Forever AgoStandard
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Released July 8th, 2007
Before 2007, Justin Vernon was a folky college rocker with an obscure band (DeYarmond Edison) and a girlfriend. In 2006, after college ended, Vernon and the band moved to North Carolina; the band and the relationship both ended in short order, and Vernon was left with mono and a liver infection, as well as a frustration with songwriting, shitty jobs, and the creeping sense of mediocrity that was building in him at the age of 25. Rather than get a 9-5 and try to settle into obscurity, Vernon exiled himself to his father’s hunting cabin in remote Wisconsin and lived alone for a while, trying to find himself and a new way to write songs without crushing his spirit. He lived through three months of Wisconsin winter, hunting for food, chopping firewood, and at one point fending off a bear. Songwriting came along, developing out of ideas he’d had shortly before a wave of depression drowned everything; they were built out of simpler arrangements, and wordless melodies that were sung in a falsetto.
The eventual result was For Emma, Forever Ago, which Vernon self-released ten years ago today. Originally he’d emerged from the Great Midwestern Wilderness with nine songs and vague plans of using them as a demo to try to convince some label or another to give him money to record a slicker version of it. His stint as the touring guitarist with North Carolina band The Rosebuds convinced him that, much like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Vernon’s recordings already were an album. He released it as such, and he quickly began fielding offers from big indie labels. Everything that came after – the fame, the Grammy (“Who da fuck is Bonny Bear?”), the job as hook man for Kanye West – stems from this, a musical act of coming to terms with the past and the things you can’t get over. “Flume” was written just prior to his breaking up with his girlfriend and retreating to the wild – he claims that it’s the song that pushed him into going in the first place. The subsequent songs dwell in questions of love, of the direction of life, and the sense of being trapped; “Re: Stacks” makes reference to his being trapped in a cycle of online gambling.
I think that this album turning a decade old is the surest sign that I am, in fact, slowly growing old. When an album like Warehouse: Songs And Stories turns 30, it doesn’t hit me as hard because I was 5 when that album came out, and I came to it much later. For Emma, Forever Ago came out when I was 25, the same age as it’s creator, and it’s sense of creeping mediocrity spoke loudly to me. It still does, ten years on, and I hope that I can eventually come to terms with it in as glorious a fashion as Justin Vernon did.