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The rock torrents of Okkervil River

September 06, 2007|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Will Scheff, lead singer and songwriter of the ramshackle folk-rock group Okkervil River, has a knack for hijacking other artists' songs. The band's fourth album, "Black Sheep Boy," begins with its version of the Tim Hardin song of the same name, and then reimagines Hardin's self-sabotaging life through 10 saloon-punk vignettes.

On his latest album, the stylishly eclectic "The Stage Names," Scheff does it again on "John Allyn Smith Sails," where the musings of a cynical poet spin off into the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." The difference this time is that, instead of character studies or taut emotional portraits, "Stage Names" is an album about being in a rock band, a subject not entirely foreign to Scheff's own experience.

Scheff keeps his hyper-articulate howl intact on "Stage Names," and it's venomous fun to watch him dissect the artifice of his own career.

The veteran band, however, still has some kinks to work out re-creating it live. Okkervil River is built from simple ingredients -- guitar, electric piano, walking bass lines -- that boil over into a fierce orchestral racket. But the band's set Tuesday at the Troubadour was marred by an uncertain sound mix that managed both to declaw its instrumental interplay and to make Scheff sound a bit silly on the screaming parts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Okkervil River: A review of the folk-rock group Okkervil River in the Sept. 6 Calendar Weekend section misspelled the last name of singer Will Sheff as Scheff.

Once the band found its bearings, though, "Stage Names" was revealed as the missing link in the Okkervil discography -- a back-to-front collection of cohesive, neatly crafted singles. The playful bluesy taunts of "Unless It's Kicks" sound even better when Scheff chokes the life out of his microphone stand, and the gauzy piano-pop of "A Girl in a Port" is a fine entry to Okkervil's catalog of not-entirely-convinced love songs.

For all his talk of a "fake masterpiece" that's "serenely dribbling" from the speakers, Scheff's songs are about what happens when you give your personal happiness over to bigger ideas. Brian Wilson, Hardin and Otis Redding would understand.

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