Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Albums Of The Year: Number 19



It's been a good year for auteur-esque Americans, songwriters with big lyrical themes and musical ambition. Okkervil River's Will Sheff begins Black Sheep Boy with a cover of the Tim Hardin track of the same name, and then spends the rest of the album working around its themes and characters. In the wrong hands it would have sounded trite, leaning on someone else's best idea. Where Sheff and his band succeed is in possibly the purest of all expressive forms, emotion. The doomed poetry and dynamic music that reaches for the skies recall the more lauded The National, but unlike that band there's a more cohesive atmosphere about it all, driven by a determination on Sheff's behalf to get his darker thoughts over.

This idea of treating lyrics in the same way as a short story and then orchestrating the band around it does seem to be a kind of approach that only North Americans can pull off, as we've seen elsewhere this year and we'll see again on this list. Whether it's European bands almost fearing emotion or the result of labels of all sizes preferring their bands to cut to the bitter quick we're not sure, but the likes of Okkervil River glory in their ambition, and the best albums emerge when the results match up. Take For Real, which starts in an acoustic quietly seething manner, threatens to turn into power-pop and instead shifts over four minutes into barely restrained passion but backed by a proper hook. Final track So Come Back I Am Waiting neatly summarises the whole album, beginning with spare acoustic strumming and an echo-laden, almost hymnal Sheff, building into a Low-like stately lament and gradually introducing horns and subtler strings before returning to the scene of the titular character's supposed crime full of longing and privately confused emotions. Suddenly the concept has come full circle and you've barely noticed. In an album full of surprises and hidden depths, this might be the most conclusive test pass of all.

LISTEN IN: Black
EXTRA FEATURE: Lit-pop doesn't sell all that well, so Sheff used to supplement his income by writing about films for the Austin Chronicle

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