Okkervil River's new release, The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar), was created with an eye to fun and frivolity (per notes from songwriting frontman Will Sheff). Lucky us! 'Cause the lyrics featuring suicidal poets and porn stars, burned-out man-children and their shut-down lovers could really harsh one's mellow otherwise. Musically, the disc does simply swing, with the large, proficient core ensemble borne like foam on the waves of the tight guest orchestra. "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man" takes off hell-bent for Bonnie Raitt Coverland but is hijacked to Garage Rock Town with plenty of fuel to spare. And yes, there's whimsy: While lead-off track "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe" blubbers on in emobore style, the instrumentation ticks and chugs into a Springsteenian soundtrack epic, with Sheff's voice morphing to anguished shrieking at selected perfect moments. "Plus Ones" weaves a tale of superficiality out of pop-trivia imaginings ("the 100th luftballon," "candle 17," "the fourth time you're a lady"). Ultimately, these sketchy romantic fictions and docudramas are haunting. Let's just hope that the little things that remind us of Counting Crows (but about two decades younger and brainier) won't lead to an Oscar-nominated song from Shrek 6.
Fri., April 24, 7 p.m., 2009