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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

Okkervil River w/ Wye Oak @ The Pabst Theater

Sept. 21, 2011

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It was bound to happen eventually: After a decade as one of indie-rock's most consistent—and sometimes most transcendent—bands, Okkervil River has released a bad record. This year's I Am Very Far is a shambles, a fussy, overworked album that compensates for uncharacteristically thin songwriting with busy, oblique production. It's the type of fiasco that the Austin band has chanced making before, but had skillfully avoided until now. The band's frayed, hollered folk-rock has always teetered under the weight of its own grandiosity, their most lavish songs rising like Jenga towers that felt just one more trumpet fanfare or one last climactic drum hit away from complete collapse. On better albums, that tension was part of the excitement—singer-songwriter Will Sheff fed on it—but I Am Very Far's foundation is so flimsy that Sheff's overreach isn't even suspenseful. He just keeps piling heaps of noise onto songs that were never load-bearing to begin with.

The band did their best to muscle their way through this new material when they returned to the Pabst Theater for their first Milwaukee concert in four years Wednesday night, but watching the group try so hard to spark a fire from such waterlogged kindling made for a sometimes painful spectacle. A seven-piece for the night, with guest percussion from their first drummer Seth Warren-Crow, Sheff and his rotating crew of instrument bashers oversold "Wake and Be Fine" and "We Need a Myth," rock shanties that brimmed with unearned grandeur, and struggled to give traction to the slinky experiment "Piratess" and the psychedelic samba "Your Past Life as a Blast."

Fortunately, the band made up for those non-starters with plenty of fervid old material. Looking teaching-assistant chic in a trimmed beard, thick glasses and elbow-patched blazer, Sheff mined maximum drama from five songs from 2005's Black Sheep Boy—the band's most trenchant album and still their most perfectly realized statement—and for the encore the group energized the crowd with a trio of jaunty, stomp-along country-rockers from 2007's The Stage Names. When Okkervil River connects, they rival any live band in their class, but Wednesday's uneven set proved they're only as good as the material they're working with.

A Baltimore dream-pop duo increasingly drawn to grunge flare-ups and "120 Minutes" murk, openers Wye Oak are on a three-album hot streak. But not even their records capture the volume or intensity of their thrilling live show. A sleepy-eyed blonde with a voice of smoke and caramel, singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner keeps the audience at a controlled distance, both with slurred, cryptic lyrics and frequent, cautionary guitar solos that blister and seethe, making explicit an anger that her voice can't.


Photo by CJ Foeckler
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