The Stand Ins

Band: Okkervil River
Album: The Stand Ins
Best song: “Lost Coastlines” is one of the best songs of recent vintage.
Worst song: “Blue Tulip” isn’t great.

God, I love language. I love the intricacies in the way we use language. I love the way we describe certain things. I got into this fray on my old RS project when I criticized bands for being derivative, while saying others showed their roots or whatever. A commentor took issue:

To recap: The Chili Peppers suck because they’re derivative, repetitive, non-intellectual and populist. That goes double for CCR. Paradoxically, ZZ Top is great for all the same reasons.

This Benner character is absolutely right. The nuances of that stuff are hard to explain, but I love the idea that language can be manipulated in that way.

Anyway, “pretentious” and “hipster” are two of the dirtier words around. In reality, both have more pleasant synonyms (“literate” and “edgy,” respectively, though both miss the stereotypes). Calling someone “pretentious” — especially in regards to music taste — is a kiss of death. Being a hipster is a more of an aesthetic situation.

I’ve been called a hipster thrice in my life, all within the span of two months. I would welcome this, were I an actual hipster. For one, I’ve never tried cocaine and I take no illicit drugs. Moreover, I’m not vain enough to be a hipster (though I am vain). Third, I’m too old. Hipsters stop being hip, I think, around age 25 or 26. I’m 28 and most of my friends are my age or a little older. Fourth, I’m not very smart or well-read. I have two journalism degrees, for Christ’s sake. I took two English classes and read — in my free time — short story compilations or (as I am currently reading) 600-page histories of the white nationalist movement. Fifth, I hate NPR. Sixth, my favorite bands, while sorta indie, are either mostly instrumental hard rock (Mogwai), a defunct progressive rock band that is nearly synonymous with stoners (Pink Floyd) or Tortoise.

Also, I’m too bulky to be a hipster. I’ve got a gut and I lift weights as part of my fitness routine.

Look, I understand the hipster accusations. I like mass transit, I eschew action movies and blockbusters. I enjoy irony. I like indie rock, microbrews and Mad Men. I wear Chuck Taylors and buy organic. I am trying to better myself by reading. Again, I’d gladly be a hipster in the same way I’d gladly be handsome.

I am neither.

Okkervil River is a pretentious band. You could even call them hipsters. The band is named after a short story by Tatyana Tolstaya and Will Sheff (the brains behind the operation) was an accomplished rock critic. He has a whole song on The Stand Ins (“Singer Songwriter”)accusing someone else of being kind of pretentious and in doing so, cites a list of references that only an English lit major would know. I mean, Sheff is the guy who, in a 2007 interview, said this:

At the beginning of last year, I had just returned from a long tour and I was sort of feeling a little bit like music didn’t really have any more surprises for me.

(Emphasis is mine)

Does that make The Stand Ins, Sheff or the band pretentious? Yeah, it probably is. Sheff’s idea of a double album about popular culture and show business turned into this and the band’ previous album. The Stand Ins is darker than The Stage Names, hitting the suicide of porn star Savannah (“Starry Stairs”) with softly sung vocals and a low end guitar line. Augmented by a powerful organ, Sheff asks “what do you think this world is made of?” early in the song, echoing the woman’s desperation.

“Pop Lie” has the acoustic guitar/Cars-esque keyboard juxtaposition found on so many indie rock songs of recent vintage. An easy trick, yes, but an effective one. The cynicism of the lyric belies the pop standard of Sheff’s croon. The chorus is standard pop fare, albeit done better and smarter than most.

Like the Decemberists, Okkervil River uses references to its advantages, though without the hassle of annoying vocals. As mentioned, “Singer Songwriter” is a call out of hypocrisy (while being hypocritical), referencing The Kinks, some French playwright, some German silent movie, the bible and Angkor Wat. “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” makes reference to the glam rock artist turned lounge singer, with reverence to Campbell (a friend of the band).

Much of the album deals with the life of a musician, always hairy territory. “On Tour with Zykos” is a straightforward song about, well, touring. Moreover, the best song on the album is one that makes metaphor of the sea, “Lost Coastlines.” The song’s use of “boat trip as band relationship” can easily be misread into a romantic relationship metaphor, as Sheff intones about “that light that you love might not shine.”

The song is about 45 seconds too long, with the las taking over the final minute. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful dual vocal between Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg’s wonderful baritone. The interplay is fantastic and the song’s midtempo romp is about as enjoyable as music is.

Pretentious or not, it’s a great record.

As part of the album’s release, the band had friends cover songs from the record. One of those covers has the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman pairing with Sheff to do “Lost Coastlines.”

Sheff can’t totally nail Meiburg’s low register, but, still. Awesome.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

    You can contact me at rjgianfortune at gmail dot com.

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