Once, the roar of punk rock noise rallied a cry of anomie and alienation like a shot across the slowly steaming and sprawling suburban bow, spawning the vibrant, diverse Eighties underground. Now it seems the gentle swoon of traditional folk, country and blues -- housed under the guise of Americana -- is proving fertile ground for varied expressions of wounded hope and existential dread that echo their punk forebears.
The Austin (by way of New Hampshire) quartet Okkervil River began as an enjoyable if generic traditional alt-country/folk act. But with its latest release, Down the River of Golden Dreams, the group takes the genre to a new level, surveying the land between Will Oldham's spare, parched backwoods elegies and Bright Eyes' tender lo-fi epics. Suffused with a haunted romanticism, and richly arranged with well-utilized strings and horns as well as Hammonds, Rhodeses and Wurlitzers to spare, Golden Dreams soft pedals the humble alt-country trappings to embrace a more enveloping pop style.
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While there are still moments of taut, quiet drama, such as the Hammond and pedal steel gently weeping beneath the spare lope of "For The Enemy," they're put to better effect when contrasted with the abundant sonic adventurousness of tracks like the sunny '70s psych-pop anthem "Blanket and Crib," or "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," a poignant meditation that begins with the austere beauty of The Weakerthans and swells to Flaming Lips size. In so doing, they've jostled themselves toward the front of the eclectic, talented and overcrowded roots rock room that seems moments from spilling into the mainstream.