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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #61 Jan-Feb 2006

Okkervil River

More to the storyOkkervil River takes a fresh walk in its own footsteps

In the 1980s, Meriden, New Hampshire, was hardly a hotbed of conservation. “I grew up in a town of 500 people,” explains Will Sheff, frontman for Austin, Texas, indie-rock ensemble Okkervil River. His tone is relaxed, mildly playful — a marked contrast to the disarming, unselfconscious yowl his singing, at its most volatile, can embody. “When I was a kid, we didn’t recycle. Nobody did.”

With the onset of adolescence — just as he was befriending future band members Seth Warren and Zachary Thomas — his attitude changed. “In high school, I became a real environmental freak,” recalls Sheff, 29. “I would insist that we recycle everything. And this was back in the era where, if you recycled aluminum cans, you had to first run them through a can crusher, and then drive them all the way across town, where some dude with a graying ponytail would deal with them. It took a long time.”

This instinct has served him well of late. Not that he frets about his beer and soda pop empties these days; Austin, he reports, has great curbside recycling. Rather, he applied this impulse to craft not one, but two, critically acclaimed Okkervil River records in 2005: Black Sheep Boy (issued in early April) and its companion volume, the seven-song Black Sheep Boy Appendix (in late November), released via indie imprint Jagjaguwar.

Both projects were borne from inspiration Sheff found in the Tim Hardin song “Black Sheep Boy”, originally featured on Hardin’s 1967 full-length Tim II. Like Townes Van Zandt, Hardin, who died in 1980, was a singer-songwriter known for struggles with substance abuse and for the success others had with his material: Bobby Darin, the Four Tops, and Johnny Cash & June Carter each scored hits with “If I Were A Carpenter”, while Rod Stewart appropriated “Reason To Believe”, and Scott Walker immortalized “The Lady Came From Baltimore”.

Black Sheep Boy began with Okkervil covering Hardin’s original, which sketchily depicts a wayward troublemaker, briefly returned home, and his pleas simply to be left alone (“If you love me/Let me live in peace”). Discrete string parts illuminate Sheff’s weary vocal with hints of redemption, however false or fleeting. From there, the band takes the sentiments of the original and spins its dark but sympathetic portrayal of a chronic fuck-up (Hardin allegedly wrote “Black Sheep Boy” while visiting family in Eugene, Oregon, during which time he relapsed into heroin use) into a whole suite of songs, knitting together elements drawn from Sheff’s own life, bits of Hardin’s, and pure fiction, to detail the misadventures of the titular figure.

In terms of creative process, Black Sheep Boy expands on a technique introduced with Okkervil River’s sophomore release, the 2002 full-length Don’t Fall In Love With Everybody You See. In “Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas”, the narrator reflected on hearing Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”, before the Okkervil composition morphed into a full-fledged cover of its inspiration.

On the surface, it might be tempting to dismiss Black Sheep Boy Appendix as an example of recycling taken to ugly extremes. In the modern marketplace, EP-length sets of so-so supplementary material (remixes, B-sides, etc.) are regularly issued to offset a middling reception afforded an artist’s latest full-length, or to milk fans for all they’re worth before moving on.

But Black Sheep Boy won critical plaudits across the board; The New York Times, for example, praised the “elegant phrases and unexpected images” of Sheff’s lyrics. And the band’s popularity continues to build. They toured virtually nonstop in 2005, alongside acts including the Decemberists, Earlimart and Rilo Kiley, playing increasingly larger venues, in locales as far afield as Australia and Croatia.

No, the Appendix is a curious, phantasmagorical critter, not the musical equivalent of a beer can-lamp. It is neither outtakes from its companion album, nor a true sequel. “It was sort of…retrofitted,” says Sheff of the seven-track disc.

“I write lots of songs for a given record,” he begins. “We have plenty to choose from.” So the track list gets narrowed down, first during rehearsals, then even more through the tracking and mixing stages. “Finally, we end up with thirteen or fourteen songs. And even then, we maybe knock off one or two more.” (Black Sheep Boy has eleven, as does its 2003 predecessor, Down The River Of Golden Dreams.) “Not because those other songs are bad, but because I think a record shouldn’t be much longer than 48 minutes.”

There was talk of making Black Sheep Boy a double-album. Sheff ultimately dismissed that notion as “too self-indulgent.” Still, there were several orphans that simply refused to lie down in the snow and die quietly. “It wasn’t like they were crappy runners-up,” he says. “But some of them would have been much more difficult to fit on the album. Yet they couldn’t really go anywhere else, because they’d been written specifically for Black Sheep Boy, with those kinds of themes and melodic material in mind.”

His muse remained restless. Just as Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” had taken on a life of its own in Sheff’s imagination, so did these leftovers. “While we were on tour, I got the idea to rewrite those songs — and I wrote a new first song and last song, to tie it all together — and try to make the whole thing go together seamlessly, and make the Appendix its own entity — closely related to Black Sheep Boy, but almost another version of it, as if we’d tried to do the album differently.”

Even the complementary visual components, supplied by longtime Okkervil collaborator William Schaff, illustrate an alternate but overlapping universe. The cover art for the album is mostly red; blue predominates on the EP sleeve. On the front of the former, the monstrous, horned antihero is joined by other fantastic creatures at a dining table; the latter depicts him burying a sword in the flesh of his own doppelganger.

Those themes continue inside. Lyrically, while Black Sheep Boy flits between multiple points-of-view, the EP introduces recurring touchstones (foreign images glimpsed only in mirrors, voices coming through radios) that suggest schizophrenia.

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Originally Featured in Issue #61 Jan-Feb 2006

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