by Jeremy Hart
It's a dilemma almost every band has to face at some point: what do you do if every reviewer in the universe says you're one thing, and you think you're something else entirely? If you're Will Robinson Sheff, Austin-area musician and songwriter of the bands Okkervil River and Shearwater, you just have to shrug and move on.
"A lot of a our fans seem to get that we're not an 'alt.country' band, but critics don't," Sheff says ruefully. "It's ridiculous. None of us likes alt-country or ever intended to be 'alt-country' -- we're from New England, for Chrissakes! -- but it seems like that's all we get labeled. I guess we're asking for it by using acoustic guitar; I don't know.
"There's an Elvis Costello tribute album that just came out [Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello, on Glurp Records] for which we contributed a cover of 'Riot Act' that we smothered in the most ridiculously overbearing electric guitar -- in addition to a Wurlitzer and a horn section -- before running the entire song through a broken echoplex to hideously distort the mix: it's already been called 'Appalachian' and 'alt-country' by two reviewers. I give up."
He's right; it is a bit mystifying. The band does indeed hail from New England originally, nowhere near the Lone Star State -- founding members Sheff (vocals, guitar, & harmonica), Seth Warren (drums, percussion, vocals, & bass), and Zachary Thomas (vocals, bass, & mandolin) all went to high school in New Hampshire, relocating to Austin because Thomas happened to be attending the University of Texas. Once there they released their first album, Stars Too Small to Use, rounded out the band with multi-instrumentalist /ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg (vocals, Wurlitzer, accordion, & banjo) and released the incredible follow-up, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See.
Warren has since moved off to Berkeley, but the band has kept it together, even traveling west this summer to record their most recent album, Down the River of Golden Dreams (just released on Jagjaguwar Records) at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio with producer Scott Solter, who's worked with the decidedly un-countrified Court and Spark, among others. They don't speak with Texas accents, they don't sing about trucks, guns, or getting drunk (okay, maybe they sing a little bit about getting drunk, but still...), and none of them look even remotely like they belong in a Ford commercial. So what gives? What's with the country label?
Now, being a music writer myself, I have to offer up a bit of a mea culpa to Mr. Sheff: music writers, like most other writers, are generally lazy. It's far easier to come up with a quick-and-easy (if not necessarily all that accurate) comparison than it is to actually try to describe the music itself -- saying "Joy sound somewhat like the Flaming Lips covering Guided by Voices" is a heck of a lot simpler. And in Okkervil River's case, Sheff may be right that it's the instrumentation that throws everybody off; there are acoustic guitars, sure, but there are also odd-sounding organs, horns, banjo, and plenty of fiddle in the mix, too.
That said, the label doesn't stick once you look past the banjo and harmonica. The music is simple and beautifully orchestrated, with a very down-to-earth tone, but that hardly makes something country. The truth is that both Okkervil and sister band Shearwater (Sheff's "late-night songs" side project with bandmate Meiburg, Kim Burke, and Thor Harris of the Angels of Light) defy just about any label imaginable. Reeling murder ballads sit side-by-side with sweet, fractured duets with Daniel Johnston and down-home elegies to pets gone off to the backyard in the sky...the territory covered on Okkervil River's Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See is pretty vast, and what this writer's heard of the band's newest effort is similarly all over the place.
The one unifying thread for the whole mess is that it's all focused on an actual story, rather than trying to act as some sort of soul-searching meditation on life (although as with the best stories, there are morals involved, too).
"I'm definitely not into what you'd call the 'the whole singer-songwriter-baring-your-soul-onstage thing,'" Sheff says. "To me, that represents a real reduction of what the song form can be. It works in very, very rare occasions -- John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album being the only one that springs to mind -- but more often than not it comes across as self-indulgent and embarrassing. I tend not to like it if I get a sense that when a singer says 'I' they literally mean themselves."
When asked if that means that Okkervil River's songs are all fictional, Sheff demurs: "Okkervil River songs are definitely constructed out of real incidents that happened to me and to my friends, but I like to fictionalize them. That way I get to tinker with details, take the part of the character I would never really be, or explore subjects that aren't to do with my own personal pain, my own political beliefs, or any of the other tropes that members of the gut-spilling school are constantly revisiting."
Jagjaguwar Recordings -- http://www.jagjaguwar.com/
Okkervil River -- http://www.jound.com/okkervil/
Shearwater -- http://www.jound.com/shearwater/
Jound.com -- http://www.jound.com/
Glurp Records -- http://www.glurp.com/
Tiny Telephone Studios -- http://www.tinytelephone.com/
In keeping with the writerly aspects of his musical career, Sheff has also made quite a name for himself as a writer, penning critical pieces on music and film for the Austin Chronicle and the online music site Audiogalaxy.com. When asked if he finds there's any kind of conflict between playing music and being a writer, he responds with a correction of sorts.
"I don't notice any kind of conflict at all between being a writer and being a musician, but I do notice a conflict between being a musician and being a music critic," he says. "I've found that cultivating a kind of ignorance about music is good for me, and being a critic keeps me from doing that and in fact requires that I think analytically a lot about music and try to keep up on all the latest stuff. That's why I'm trying to get out of music criticism entirely and switch to film criticism.
"Still," he laughs, "every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!"
It's ironic, because the one thing that gets him going the most during our interview has to do with a film -- the Coen Brothers' beautiful, nostalgic retelling of Odysseus' journeys, O Brother Where Art Thou? What? Isn't the movie all about the same "old-time" music from which Okkervil River can be traced? No, not quite.
"My biggest concern with the O Brother Where Art Thou? hoopla is that I believe it's just as shallow as yuppie America's newfound love of Cuban music two years ago, with the Buena Vista Social Club, or their love of Irish music four years ago, when they all saw Titanic," Sheff says.
"I don't think it represents any genuine new appreciation. You can really see the shallowness of the O Brother-inspired bluegrass revival when you consider the ignorance of context that is at its center; here we have a broad, ironic comedy movie that takes place in a pre-bluegrass decade being credited with the revival of good old-fashioned bluegrass sincerity. Meanwhile, nobody seems to point out that the actual American old-time music that came 'down from the mountain' wasn't bluegrass at all -- which, having been created in the late '40s as a self-conscious reaction to how slick country music was getting, could more accurately be described as trying to go 'back up the mountain' -- but the kind of old-time Appalachian ballads that were being recorded in the mid-1920s by the likes of Kelly Harrell and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Still, the 1940s is the same as the 1920s to people who don't really care, and while Alison Kraus may be lining her pockets with the O Brother cash, there doesn't seem to be a Bascom Lamar Lunsford revival going on.
"Really, though, the past is gone," he muses. "We can't go back in time, no matter how many black people we dress up in overalls and pay to sing chain gang songs; watch the O Brother concert documentary Down from the Mountain if you don't believe me. That old music, as great as it was, is gone, and anyone who writes a new song about moonshine or riding the rails should just put down their guitar and join a Civil War reenactment society instead. A singer should be faithful and respectful of the methods of their elders, not their historical trappings. If Lead Belly was alive today, he'd be singing about airplanes and TV, and he sure as fuck wouldn't be caught dead wearing overalls. End of rant. Bring on the Tuvan throat-singers." END