Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008

Okkervil River vs. The Walkmen

By Evan Rytlewski
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I've lavished some almost recklessly lavish praise on Okkervil River over the years, but I still stand by it all. After releasing two of the defining albums of my college years, the vibrant Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See and the lovely Down the River of Golden Dreams, the group wowed me with some of the most frenzied live shows I've ever seen. It turns out that those shows, as Will Sheff explained to me in a 2005 interview, were a rehearsal of sorts for the album that was to come.

"I really wanted to make a record that was raw, rough and sort of more of a tight-rope walk," he explained, "so our goal on tour was trying to see how far we could take it every night, and see where could take rock and roll, so we could bring that to Black Sheep Boy."

Simultaneously harried and graceful, 2005's Black Sheep Boy is one of the most engaging records I've ever heard. Years after its release, I still make time to listen to it start to finish, the way others watch their favorite movie, and I still feel like I've barely cracked the surface.

Though subsequent releases haven't astonished quite as much, and though the band has toned down their live shows considerably since their all-out 2004 tour, they continue to grow in inviting new directions. They widened their audience with 2007's snappy, frequently stunning The Stage Names, following up that disc this month with a stripped-down sequel, The Stand-Ins, the band's most direct album since their debut. For all their catharsis, Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names were labored albums, but The Stand-Ins is unencumbered and free-spirited, driven not by literary conceit but by gut feeling.

It's with good reason, then, that new fans are flocking to Okkervil River. After years of playing small clubs in Madison, Wis., a city so historically welcoming to them that the band considers it like a second home, the group filled the city's large Barrymore Theatre Sunday night (Muzzle of Bees has some great photos). The crowd was loud and appreciative, milking a second encore from the group.

I couldn't help but feel somewhat bad for openers The Walkmen, though. That band, too, released a strong 2002 debut, and followed it up with a mean album that place them among indie-rock's top tier, 2004's Bow's & Arrows. The embodiment of the New York guitar band, The Walkmen had everything going for them, but four years and three uneven albums after the Bow's & Arrows fervor, the buzz around the group has died down to a quite hum. Though they continue to command great reviews from the same sources that have always trumpeted them, much of Sunday's audience appeared unfamiliar with them and were especially indifferent to the group's subdued new material.

The Walkmen are, in many ways, the opposite of Okkervil River. Where Okkervil River blow up their style every couple of albums, The Walkmen's core sound-their shakey guitars, their ticking tempos-have changed little from album to album. While Okkervil River's Sheff flails his voice wildly from song to song as he attempts risky notes without a safety net, Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser clings tightly to his range, never pushing his voice beyond its limits.

Sunday night's concert was a study in contrasts, a pairing of one of indie-rock's most dynamic bands and one of its most static. Both bands are deserving, but it's easy to see why one is on the rise and one is on the fall.

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