Okkervil River - "Wake and Be Fine" (I Am Very Far)
Unlike a lot of Okkervil River’s previous work, I Am Very Far is not a concept album (at least not obviously so). It was produced by Will Sheff, Okkervil River’s lead singer and songwriter, in a series of recording sessions in Austin, Connecticut and Brooklyn. No, the common thread here feels like Sheff’s desire to experiment and push the band beyond its folk-rock and alt-country origins. We can only hope that weird streak is due to Sheff’s work with Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, whom Okkervil River backed up on last year’s True Love Cast Out All Evil.
Experimental can be a broad term, and one that depends on context. A band can put together an “experimental” song or album without necessarily taking unmitigated risks. I Am Very Far is full of touches like that. On “Piratess,” for instance, the middle of the song contains a solo that’s just the sound of a cassette tape being fast-forwarded. It’s noticeable, but it’s only a brief interlude, and one not necessarily indicative of what’s going on during the rest of the song – which is really just a mid-tempo folk-rock jam.
And aside from “Piratess” and a few other songs – like opener “The Valley,” a spooky, driving song with apocalyptic lyrics – there is not much on I Am Very Far that will be unfamiliar to Okkervil River’s growing fan base. There are a couple of sweeping anthems (“Rider” and “We Need a Myth”) that showcase the band’s diverse accompaniment -- pleasant tunes, but not memorable by anthem standards. “White Shadow Waltz” is almost entirely taken up with changes in tempo and dynamics; like “Piratess” it has some odd flourishes (for instance, the sound of a file cabinet being thrown and rolled across a room) that feel like they should be leading up to something (they don’t). The best parts of I Am Very Far are the least self-conscious, like the low-key “Show Yourself” and “Your Past Life as a Blast.”
With no connecting thread or great songwriting, I Am Very Far is difficult to engage with. It has its moments, of course, but the more I listen, the more I think of it as a creative palette cleanser -- a chance to try out a few ideas while planning the next big song cycle.