Saturday, November 19, 2005

Appendix: Necessary

Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy is the first record I’ve ever heard that was followed by its own appendix.

The cynic’s first thought might be that appendix is a cutesy clever title for a follow-up EP, but I swear it’s the absolute best description of the record.

Black Sheep Boy is a stunning record, full of harsh imagery and chaotic, crashing sounds that all fit together to create the feeling of a lost outsider, hurt and strange and longing for solid ground. It’s like the swirling TV static dizziness of a head rush, but with emotions and more dimensions than you know what to do with. The songs build together, each taking little detours into its own little world of abandonment and the identity-questioning of a born outsider.

And the appendix takes a few more detours, from the “you never earned your soul” chorus of “No Key, No Plan” to the familiar refrain and melody of “Black Sheep Boy #4.”

Will Sheff has written one of the most intricately meditative records in all of rock, spinning the notion of the black sheep over and over and over and over, digging songs out of every crack he can find. There’s hopelessness, anger, abandonment, listfullness, optimism, confusion, paranoia, love and hate and it’s all just stacked together and molded just right, more of a long windows-down drive than a roller coaster ride. Running through it all is a sense of solitude, for good and bad, out of choice and out of necessity. Sheff has bred his black sheep into dozens of different varieties, each its own creature, few even sharing in resemblance anything but that black sheep DNA.

At two recent live shows, I saw the band – Will especially – perform with more confidence and assuredness than ever before. They’re in command, from the softest chord strumming to the wildest drum pounding. It’s a performance, but it’s unstaged. No two set lists are the same. No patter is pre-written. It’s just a band whose members appear to feel most comfortable and alive when they’re playing music for people. And those are the best.

The Tucson show was just the second back in the states, after two days off following a 22-show, 22-day Europe tour. The band was wiped, Will’s voice in sharp decline, and it was the first show back for keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg. Will busted strings and damn near killed his voice, but it all seemed to enrich the performance. Okkervil River isn’t the fucking Sound of Music. It’s chaotic tumbling music, full of unbridled energy and fueled by some of the strangest, most poetic lyrics ever screamed out at the top of the lungs. The crowd wouldn’t let them end, with a forceful contingent to my right lobbying heavily for Kansas City, one of the screamiest songs in the catalog. And Will complied. I snagged a set list after the show: it wasn’t even on their list, but they brought the house down.

I later learned the next day’s show in San Diego was cancelled so Will could visit a doctor, who diagnosed him with strep throat and told him not to talk for a week. Will said the tour must go on, and it did, with steroids for his throat and plenty of tea.

I caught up with them in San Francisco a few days later for a show that couldn’t have been more different except for its quality. There must’ve been only two or three songs that were the same in both sets. It was remarkably high energy, and in talking with band members afterwards they only looked rejuvenated, thrilled to have just finished having that much damn fun.

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