Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

Okkervil River's Early Christmas Present

By Evan Rytlewski
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It won’t get the same love as Radiohead’s grand online experiment, but Okkervil River dropped a nifty little Hanukkah gift today: Golden Opportunities, a completely free (no donations allowed) “mixtape”—more accurately, an album-length compilation of live covers. You can download it here. Although the band finally scored their big breakthrough this year with The Stage Names, a tuneful, easy-going indie-pop album, Golden Opportunities showcases the rawer, folkier side of the band that they reserve for EPs, splits and other non-album material. These performances are mournful and unsteady, with only the occasional symphonic flourish breaking the tension. Will Sheff covers thematically relevant selections from songwriters like Randy Newman, John Cale and Joni Mitchell, but also includes a live take of one significant original, “Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas,” the first conceptually ambitious track Okkervil River ever attempted. Half bittersweet account of a visit home for the holidays, half nostalgic cover of an Otis Redding favorite, it’s one of the band’s sweetest creations, and also the composition where they learned to break the conventions of a cover song. They continued their cover-bending streak with Black Sheep Boy, an entire record conceived around an oft-overlooked Tim Hardin song, then on The Stage Names, an album tied together by lyrical allusions to songs of yore. Like an overzealous comp-lit major, Sheff twists the works of others to voice his own convictions. Singing a loosely translated Serge Gainsbourg number on Golden Opportunities, for instance, he unflinchingly adds an original verse. Nobody will confuse his covers with the originals. The Golden Opportunities mixtape stands as a sort of appendix to The Stage Names—the two releases share many motifs, like the undignified actress and the working rock band—but there’s no need to research these tracks and comb the lyrics for clues in order to enjoy it. Longtime fans can revel in the glorious return to the band’s old sound, while newcomers converted by The Stage Names can gain a sense of the band’s range.
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