Okkervil River, The Stage Names
Okkervil River should have always been a band I liked. They have all the right ingredients: strong songwriting, great lyrics, nice variety. Yet my enjoyment has always been tentative—I'd download a track whenever one came up on a blog, and I'd like the song, but I'd never pull the trigger at the record store. I couldn't escape the suspicion that they were secretly mediocre—positive that all the songs I hadn't heard would be morose, meandering downers. I've voiced this suspicion before, but thanks to commenters assuring me otherwise, I finally took a shot with The Stage Names in December. In a way it was a touch leap to take, because this album's lead single, and leadoff track, "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe," was probably one of my least favorite Okkervil River I'd encountered. There's something too melodramatic, too premeditated about it.
Hearing the full album for the first time, then, didn't get off to a great start. But then! The Stage Names quickly takes off on a string of outstanding tracks. The propulsive march of "Unless It's Kicks," the energy of "Is There a Hand to Take Hold of the Scene"—all the way to the end of the album. "Savannah Smiles" is a total button-pusher, like the most manipulative Oscar-baiting movie, but it succeeds (I admit I'm a sucker for songs about fathers). "A Girl in Port" is a joy, lyrically, like sidling up to Will Sheff's barstool as he tells some tales. And my current-favorite "Plus Ones" is like a game—I'm still trying to catch all the references Sheff is making.
A couple of these songs I'd downloaded a while ago, but on their own they just didn't do it for me. As one of my commenters noted, Okkervil River is best consumed by the album, not by the track. Each part is made stronger by the sum. If I'd heard The Stage Names sooner, it would have been in my top albums of the year. In fact, it would have been squarely in the top two.
Ruby Suns, Sea Lion
I'd never heard of the Ruby Suns until my wife stumbled across them while searching for something else. She heard one track and sent off some dollars to Sub Pop for the full-length, and a week later it arrived. I forget just how refreshing it can be to hear a full album—not just a single song—completely cold. People are so used to dipping their toe in with an mp3 here, an iPod commercial there, that you typically buy an album already knowing at least one song, and therefore prepared for the overall sound. Not so with the Ruby Suns. They could've been mambo or math rock for all I knew.
That said, Sea Lion didn't knock me out on first listen. In fact it kinda floated right past me. Chalk it up to the occasional spacey song, the occasional substitute lead singer, and the overall layer of sounds and instruments. Despite being more or less a pseudonym for one guy, Ryan McPhun, the Ruby Suns sounds like a collective. Lots of voices, lots of instruments. In fact, speaking of collectives, the Ruby Suns seem to be some kind of spiritual brethren of the Elephant 6 bands. Happily, though, the Ruby Suns don't sound indebted to 60s pop—merely influenced, including by 60s acts like Os Mutantes (check "Tane Mahuta"—but to understand the variety of the album, also check "Remember").
Now I've owned Sea Lion for a few weeks, and like the best kind of album it's getting better with each and every listen. I'm almost ready to declare it my favorite album of 2008 so far. The complexities of Sea Lion have begun to reveal themselves, such as the way the vocal melody for "Ole Rinka" pops up four songs later as the instrumental hook for "Kenya Dig It." That's just one example; in short, Sea Lion is an interesting album, packed with musical ideas and full of pop hooks. It's like a perfectly cohesive mixtape: a lot of variety but glued together by some underlying similarities—and not too long, either.
Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam
I've mentioned in the past that my irrational preconceived notions kept me from ever investigating Animal Collective, so Strawberry Jam marks my first real encounter with the band, despite the handful of critically acclaimed albums behind them. I've been won over. I'm officially kicking myself that I was such a bastard about getting into these guys.
I like this album a lot—like Okkervil River, this would make it to my best-of list if I were to revise it—but I have to point out that Strawberry Jam is buoyed tremendously by three tracks in particular: "Peacebone," "For Reverend Green," and "Fireworks." The latter two in particular hold the whole thing up, coming as they do in the middle of the album one after another, both possessing similar characterstics (oohing choruses, hypnotic rhythms). They are the heart of the album and they mask some of the other (shorter and less captivating) songs. "For Reverend Green" especially has really struck a personal nerve for me. Perhaps fodder for another post, but I think the song will be one of those tunes I'll strongly associate with a specific point in my life.
Vampire Weekend, s/t
Okay everyone, it's been almost two months since I advised you all to chill on reading, writing, and opining about Vampire Weekend. Did you? Did your hatred of their colonialist shenanigans wane? Did your loathing of their upper-class signifiers relax? Did you enjoy the simplicity of their easygoing, tuneful pop confections? Don't tell me: you did, but then Saturday Night Live and MTV ruined it all over again. Stupid backlash! It's still a good album. I'd offer you an mp3, but come on; you gotta know by now what you think.
Related: this was my favorite Vampire Weekend/Gilmore Girls scenario from the comments to Friday's post:
Emily sets Rory up on a date with one of her DAR friends' sons/nephews, who turns out to be Ezra Koenig. He invites Rory to see his band, she brings Lane, and they leave right away because of Rostam Batmanglij's awful scarf. Rory and Lorelai then go on to have an extended conversation about scarves, leading to an episode long joke of Lorelai making references to "Scarfie."
Come back tomorrow and I'll run down the rest of my listening hours for the last three months. But first—later today you'll get some bonus tracks.