Black Sheep Boy/Sleep and Wake-Up Songs
Like Alasdair Roberts or Jason Molina, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is one of those hoarse troubadours that have surfaced in recent years from some magical backwoods with limitless fantastic tales to relate. Sleep and Wake-Up Songs finds the band treading familiar ground that’s shared equally between the campfire and the graveyard. The music the band spins is spare, bleary-eyed and hungover, drawing heavily from traditional Americana and folk music. Both “You’re Untied Again” and “Just Give Me Time” echo timelessly like death ballads from a previous century, while the remaining tracks creak with sounds from coastal shanty towns. Yet while this is all excellent stuff, there’s little to distinguish this EP from Sheff’s likeminded brethren.
Interestingly, Black Sheep Boy, the follow up full-length, sees the band stretching their songwriting abilities beyond 19th century parameters. Sheff finds inspiration in psychedelic folksinger Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy,” and extrapolates the titular character’s plight into a concept album. Using a broader thematic canvas to work with, opens up Sheff to a plethora of new sounds and ideas. There’s a palpable shift from rough-hewn Americana to driving indie rock all over the LP. Nowhere is this change more evident than the poppy piano that threads a bouncy beat on “Black.” It would be a positively uplifting dance song, if Sheff’s lyrics didn’t revel in nightmares, telling a story of abuse and revenge. In fact, many of the tracks find Sheff preaching dark, fiery, claustrophobic and vengeful sermons: tales of women who love immovable objects, confused sheep, spilled blood and the forsaken. It’s a bleak picture that manifests a slightly optimistic, if still sinister, level of redemption on the closing track, “A Glow.”
Long time fans of Okkervil River might lament the band’s shift to a more mainstream sound, but close inspection reveals that the old tones haven’t been drained off, just diluted for the moment to tell a more epic tale than the band has attempted previously. Time will tell whether the band will decant the modern leanings in the future, but from the standpoint of Black Sheep Boy the future of the band looks bright either way.