When I heard that Okkervil River would be performing a new song on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, I quickly called dibs on writing the inevitable article about it. For the next 96 hours while I waited for it to air I shared many a pleasant conversation about how awesome Will Sheff is with RFC Editor In Chief Amber “Captain” Valentine.
Here’s the problem, Okkervil River’s sixth LP I Am Very Far could be a Creed cover album, and not only would I love it but I’d start un-ironically listening to Creed and enjoying them for their influence on one of my favorite bands. In my mind, Will Sheff can do no wrong. I own literally everything he’s ever recorded and there isn’t a single song of his I don’t thoroughly enjoy. With the exception of my beloved Bob Dylan and John Darnielle, Will Sheff is my favorite artist. Whenever somebody bitches about how music isn’t as good as it was back in the 60s/70s/80s/90s I force them to listen to Okkervil River and rant about how they’re the best band making music today (sadly John Darnielle’s releases have been weak since 2008s Heretic Pride and Bob Dylan’s last good album was 1997s Time Out Of Mind).
You see, dear reader, I take my job as a music journalist for Radio Free Chicago very seriously. With every article I write I do my best to leave personal bias out of the equation. I force myself to be open minded, and to love things for what they offer and not what I prefer. Because Will Sheff appeared on TV and played music, I just about pissed myself in ecstasy and made numerous all caps Facebook status updates about how excited I was. The point is, “Wake And Be Fine” could very well be mediocre and I’d write a glowing review about it here because of my bias, and I really don’t want to do that. So please, take this review with not just a grain but a shaker of salt.
The first thing that struck me when Okkervil River began playing was how many people there were on stage. Besides Will Sheff there was a male backup vocalist, a bassist, an electric guitarist, two drummers, a pianist, an oboe player, a saxophone player, a french horn player, two violinists, and a tuba player. As for the song itself, it feels like a gigantic leap forward from Sheff’s last LP, radio-friendly The Stand Ins. Sheff is no stranger to lush instrumentation as evidenced by 2007s The Stage Names, but with “Wake And Be Fine” Sheff appears to be cranking it up to eleven. Sheff ferociously attacks the vocals with passion. Ninety percent of the time Okkervil River songs start quiet with Sheff singing and playing by himself while the rest of Okkervil River slowly joins in, gradually escalating in dynamics and tempo. Instead, “Wake And Be Fine” kicks off at full volume, takes a short dynamic softening near the middle, then quickly launches into full volume again until the end. Honestly, I was hoping for something soft and intimate full of overwrought emotion like 2005s Black Sheep Boy so I could delve headfirst into Sheff’s lyrics. While “Wake And Be Fine”’s lyrics were still audible, there was so much going on instrumentally that I found it hard to focus on them.
One of the toughest obstacles every musician faces is how to evolve from one album to next. Do you stick to the winning formula that earned you so many fans as the last record, or do you switch things up? Despite the sheer size of his ensemble, “Wake And Be Fine” is a refreshing variation on Okkervil River’s trademark sound while still feeling at home with the rest of the discography. It’s a thoroughly satisfying appetizer for my most anticipated LP of 2011. Now if only May 10th would get here sooner.