Plumbiferous Media

I Am Very Far – Okkervil River

May 22nd 2011
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I Am Very Far - Okkervil RiverOkkervil River
I Am Very Far
Score: 93

Three years after the excellent The Stand Ins, Okkervil River, founded in Austin in 1998, has released I Am Very Far. Over the years, Okkervil River has proven itself quite capable of making excellent music – but most of their albums have had significant low points. The Stand Ins was the first step towards more uniform excellence – and I Am Very Far is an even bigger step. The group’s newest album is a colorful, carefully constructed journey through the musical experiences Okkervil River has often hinted at and occasionally delved into. I Am Very Far is almost certainly Okkervil River’s best album, and it’s no less of a success considered alone.

On I Am Very Far, Okkervil River tends towards steady, solid baselines that give frontman Will Sheff a strong foundation for his voice. That’s certainly not to say that Okkervil River’s instrumentals don’t have merit by themselves – quite the opposite. They may focus on creating a strong backbone, but they’re also thoroughly nuanced, in ways that make them both richly dynamic and a pleasure to listen to. The album seamlessly moves between the intricate but powerful strumming of “Rider” and the elegant, constantly swelling sound of “Lay of the Last Survivor.” This is not an album that finds a pattern and sticks to it. Rather, it’s an album that uses what works best at any given moment, and that’s certainly part of what makes it so gripping throughout.

Sheff is an excellent vocalist, and he’s given – and takes – every opportunity to demonstrate it on I Am Very Far. It’s hard to imagine a voice that would be better suited to tell the alternately soaring and blood-soaked stories of the album, and Sheff’s vocals are certainly well-accompanied, neither overbearing nor drowned in bass. It doesn’t matter if it’s the intensity of “Rider”‘s loudest parts or the careful hum Sheff’s voice creates on “Show Yourself.” It simply works, and it’s a pleasure to listen to.

Okkervil River is, as a general rule, a reliable source of engaging writing. It’s not surprising, then, that I Am Very Far is so well written. It’s sometimes intensely visceral, as the opening lines demonstrate: “We watch the sun switching in the sky, off and on / Where our friend stands bleeding on the late summer laws / A slicked back bloody black gunshot to the head / He has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” Other times, it’s quieter but no less gripping. It’s clear that as much attention has been paid to the sound of the words as to their content, as Sheff uses the tonal quality of his words to create lines like “Wan White Shadow Waltz stirs, sputters and stalls / Then wakes, wavers and walks right through her prison walls,” creating an abstract and yet oddly clear image that simultaneously sounds fantastic.

I Am Very Far is, quite simply, an excellent album. Okkervil River has managed to take all of its strengths – Will Sheff’s voice, inspired writing, and rich instrumentals – and distill them into an work that brings each of those parts into clear focus. I Am Very Far is a success not only for Okkervil River but for the genre as a whole. It’s an emotionally charged, thoroughly imaginative exploration of what works, and more importantly what is enjoyable. It’s an album that deserves to be celebrated – and one for which Okkervil River deserves praise.

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