Okkervil River: I Am Very Far

Okkervil River’s sixth album is a bold, seething piece of work, a decisive turn away from its more immediately appealing predecessors The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins. Written and recorded at the same time but released a year apart (2007 and 2008 respectively), that pair of albums was originally intended as a double – a move which would have made sense in terms of both records’ smart production and hyperactive focus on the unsavoury aspects of being in a band and of pop culture in general. But it feels good and right that this new record has a much wider and more unsettling frame of reference. It’s tricky to say what it’s about, exactly, other than to point to the sense of dread and unease that grips the listener from start to finish.

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Shearwater, Vienna Chelsea, 13 April 2012

A very stimulating evening in the company of American art rock quintet Shearwater, playing their first show in Vienna to a sold out Chelsea crowd. By way of background, I only got to know about Shearwater because singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg is a former member of Okkervil River, whose last four albums I’ve admired immensely.  Not to mention that Okkervil River’s 2008 concert at Porgy & Bess is in the running for best concert I’ve ever seen. (Despite touring extensively all over Europe last year, they have of course come nowhere near Vienna since that superlative show.) Meiburg appears to have left Okkervil River sometime after 2008’s The Stand Ins, although a close reading of the credits to that and the two previous OR albums reveals that he had no hand in writing any of the songs on them. In theory, therefore, liking Okkervil River was no guarantee that I would also like Shearwater.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried, since Shearwater were a highly impressive outfit in their own right. Meiburg may have lacked something of Will Sheff’s dramatic and powerful stage presence, but he more than made up for it with his searing guitar work and beautifully controlled vocals that constantly threatened to erupt into a stentorian roar – and, indeed, frequently did so. If it was next to impossible to make out most of the words, that was less due to any lack of clear delivery on Meiburg’s part and more a case of his texts having to fight it out for supremacy against the overwhelming force of the group’s sound. With two keyboard players also doubling up on guitar, and a drummer whose unrelenting rhythms were pushed way up high in the mix, the effect was frequently breathtaking.

What I liked most was the gravity and seriousness of it all. Although Meiburg and the rest of the group were relaxed and funny between songs, once in flight (to borrow a metaphor from Meiburg’s beloved birds), they invoked total commitment and an almost confrontational fervour. A song like “Animal Life” begins with a placid tone and an elegant vocal line, before straying unsettlingly into an environment laced with claustrophobic anxiety. Like many of their songs, it ends abruptly and with a minimum of fuss, as does the exuberant cover of REM’s “These Days” with which they close the evening. Stripped of all histrionics and melodrama, Shearwater possess a brooding and ominous attitude that grips the listener tightly by the throat.

Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Ether column, November 2008

The Vienna Songwriting Association are a fine group of individuals who promote concerts of folk and acoustic music all year round in this city. As well as this, every November they put on a three-day festival of internationally known artists, the Bluebird Festival, at Porgy & Bess. There are some great names at this year’s event, such as Okkervil River playing almost a year to the day since their last appearance in Vienna. I raved about them in my November 2007 column, so let’s talk instead about one of my all-time musical heroes, American singer and songwriter Michael Gira. Gira initially made his name as the driving force behind Swans, a crushingly loud and formidable outfit who emerged from the creative ferment that was early ’80s downtown New York. When they first came to public attention, Swans presented a vision of rock music as a form of abjection, with bone-crunching percussion to the fore and lyrics that focused relentlessly on traumatic explorations of work, sex and the body. Over the years they gradually let the light in, bringing softer and more acoustic textures into their music. After Gira ended Swans in 1997 he began a new project, the Angels of Light, which placed even more emphasis on acoustic elements. In all of these incarnations, however, Gira has never swerved from an implacable belief in the atavistic power of the song. Straining with every muscle and sinew of his body, he sings with immense authority and commitment, every moment of his performance filled with tenderness and rage. This rare solo appearance by one of rock music’s most exceptional talents should on no account be missed.

Early next month, soulful British group Tindersticks stop off in Vienna on their first tour in several years. Like many others, I had doubted that they would ever return to active service. Over 15 years and seven albums, Tindersticks have perfected a literate and highly listenable blend of alternative rock, chamber music, soul and jazz, defined by rich string-laden orchestrations and the desolate croon of singer and lyricist Stuart Staples. Having released nothing new since 2003 and with rumours of a split rife, their story seemed on the brink of an end; to my great pleasure, however, they are back with an excellent new album, The Hungry Saw. Although three of the original members have now left, the new album is a worthy addition to the group’s catalogue and will no doubt be subjected to passionate live treatment. Staples is an enigmatic figure, rarely speaking onstage and often seeming to be transported elsewhere as he performs; he has remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the split. But the group bring a marvellously intuitive sense of drama and mystery to their songs, with violin, brass and organ enveloping the listener in a warm and tender embrace.

Okkervil River, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 22 November 2008

Okkervil River’s concert at Porgy & Bess on Saturday night is a very strong contender for my show of the year. With just a few weeks to go before 2008 wraps up, its pole position is unlikely to be overtaken. This was a night of sheer blinding inspiration, with song after song ramming home extraordinary amounts of rhythmic flair and melodic inventiveness. In Will Sheff the group has a frontman like none I have ever seen: searingly honest, passionate and quite transported in his breathtaking urge to communicate through live performance.

The epic “A Girl In Port,” from Okkervil’s 2007 album The Stage Names, is probably the best song I’ve heard all year, and repeated listens have convinced me of its greatness. So when the group launched into it as the very first song of this concert, I knew at once that it was going to be a highly memorable evening. And so it proved, as the concert unfolded into a shatteringly effective piece of communal music theatre. Whether welded to his acoustic guitar, clinging to the microphone stand, leaning precipitously over the stage or sharing a moment of closeness with the immaculate band behind him, Sheff does nothing less than redefine the limits of what it is possible for a musician to do onstage. His smile is winning, his voice emotive, his communion with the audience uniquely close and thrilling. After “A Girl In Port,” the other song that has had a deep impact on me this year is “Black,” from 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. I was praying they would play it, but dared not hope; when they launched into this surging rollercoaster of a song, I felt… well, there are really no words.

With their cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” chosen and rehearsed (so Sheff told us) specifically for this concert, Okkervil River displayed a sense of place and a generosity of spirit that contrasted markedly with Cohen’s own performance of the same song here in Vienna a few months ago. Sheff said the group always enjoy playing here because of the response they receive from the audiences. Maybe he says that every night, although somehow I doubt it. In any event, for them to play that song here felt like a precious gift from the group to the audience. The old groaner, on the other hand, made no specific introduction to the song when he played it in Vienna, as if refusing to acknowledge that there was something beautiful and special about hearing the song played by its author in the magnificent surroundings of the Konzerthaus. This dogged refusal to deviate one iota from his prepared script on those two evenings was profoundly depressing.

And I’m really not in the habit of doing this kind of thing, but on Saturday I couldn’t resist: I reached out and shook Sheff’s hand as he left the stage, then stretched over and retrieved not one but two of his discarded guitar picks (Jim Dunlop 0.6mm, if you’re interested). Whether they’ll enable any of the magic of this concert to transfer to my own hopeless attempts to play the guitar remains to be seen. In any event, this was an evening of transformative joy and elation such as I have rarely if ever experienced in a concert hall.

Photos by David Murobi here.

Ether column, November 2007

Fans of American alt-rock are faced with a difficult choice this month, as two of the more literate exponents of the genre play in Vienna on the same evening – a scheduling anomaly likely to halve the audience for both concerts. First up, Texas’ Okkervil River, who hit the Szene as part of an extensive European tour. Named after a river in St. Petersburg, Okkervil River have since forming in 1998 racked up four increasingly confident and powerful albums. Their current release, The Stage Names, is an exhilarating train ride of emotions hinging on the words and vocals of singer and lyricist Will Sheff. Sheff delivers his texts in a passionate, utterly persuasive style, switching from an outraged howl to a desolate and unearthly croon. Musically, Okkervil River present a feast of lush instrumentation, with cornet and lap steel guitar augmenting the band’s standard rock line-up and bringing Sheff’s precise and evocative lyrics sparklingly to life.

Across town at the Flex, New York’s Fiery Furnaces have their own album, Widow City, to promote. The brother and sister duo of guitarist Matthew and singer Eleanor Friedberger are a more challenging proposition than Okkervil River, with jarring changes of pace and blasts of concrète noise among the treats on offer. The Furnaces are songwriters at heart, however, and it’s never too long before their music returns to solid ground. With the core duo joined for live work by other musicians, the band specialise in lengthy medleys incorporating elements from a number of their songs.

Meanwhile, Porgy & Bess continues its ongoing mission to bring the finest free jazz musicians in the world to Vienna with a concert by the tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and his Quartet. Ware has an impeccable pedigree; he was taught circular breathing by the veteran saxman Sonny Rollins, and in the 70s played in pianist Cecil Taylor’s band. He didn’t set out with his own group until the late 80s, but he has more than made up for lost time with a relentless schedule of gigging and recording. With his febrile, provocative style, Ware is arguably the foremost living exponent of the Fire Music espoused by 60s greats like Ayler and Coltrane.

Finally, a quick mention of an appearance by someone even more out there than Ware: the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. I raved at length about Brötzmann in my June column, so this time I’ll simply note that he’s playing a special concert, starting at midnight, with the Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino. I can think of no better pair of musicians to keep the audience from falling into a small-hours slumber.

Okkervil River, Vienna Szene Wien, 19 November 2007

Took the S-Bahn over to the Szene last night for a concert by Okkervil River. This group were a new name to me, I only looked them up when doing research for the column and immediately liked what I heard. Live, they didn’t disappoint. A six-man line-up (I’m a sucker for big bands; I love the hugeness of the sound they produce – cf. Jaga Jazzist, what happened to them?), with cornet, lap steel and accordion filling out the orchestration. Will Sheff was an arresting and formidable frontman, passionate and aggressive but with a strong undercurrent of melancholy which came well to the fore in the acoustic songs. I hate lazy comparisons but there were echoes of Tindersticks in the stylishness of the instrumentation, and of the Bad Seeds in the energy and conviction with which the songs were delivered.

All in all, a sparkling show, received rapturously by the usual attentive and appreciative Szene audience. Except, that is, for the two girls close to me who talked to each other throughout the entire concert. I’m still wondering what they could find to talk about at such length, and why they thought the middle of a concert hall was an appropriate place to do it.