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 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

MUSIC

 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
Okkervil River
Black Sheep Boy
Jagjaguwar Records

Rating: 9/10 ?


June 17, 2005
Some roads you just don't go down; that's how it is sometimes when people have experienced trauma. Ask a war veteran what combat is like, and silence, more often than not, will be your answer. It's no different for a troubled girl named Cynda Moore, the subject of "Black", off Okkervil River's latest record.

Cynda was abducted as a child - taken just outside her house by a man who probably did unspeakable things to her, things that hurt her so deeply she refuses to talk about them years later. But she survived, and now she's an adult, still haunted by the ordeal. Will Scheff adopts the persona of a male companion who's powerless to help her heal, but nothing's working; from the depths of his despair he sings, "Though I know that I'm not useful anyhow/Just let me stick around while while I tell you, like before/that you should say his name the way that he said yours."

A wellspring of humanity pours from Scheff's soul. He sings as if he's being drawn and quartered by frustration and the realization that he can't lead her out of the darkness. When he yells out, "Won't you let me through that door", his pathos is impossible to ignore. It's one of most the affecting vocal, and lyrical, performances of this or any year. Shivers run up and down your spine as the words, "If I could tear his throat/spill his blood between my jaws and erase his name for good" are released from Scheff's mouth like homing pigeons. Strangely enough for such a sad tale of woe, the song has an up-tempo pop melody and quickening pulse that reminds you of the Counting Crows, only the drumming seems more impassioned: the keyboards burn a little brighter and the anthemic guitars rise up with a righteous indignation the Crows could never match.

Leave it to Scheff and Okkervil River to somehow make such contradictory impulses mesh. With Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River has ascended to heights only Wilco, Will Oldham and Neutral Milk Hotel dare to fly. First and foremost, Black Sheep Boy is a spellbinding Southern Gothic narrative with evocative imagery - a wounded heart and bloody violence. Each song is short story unto itself, though some are seemingly connected by Scheff's simple, unaffected metaphors. The "claws" Scheff would use to rip open the flesh of Moore's tormentor in "Black" reappear in the elegant, aching "A Radio Song", where an animal lies dying in dark, rippling keyboard pools with "holes in its throat" and its "tongue was torn by [your claws, your claws, your claws]." Elsewhere, references to deposed royalty are found in "A King And Queen" and "So Come Back, I Am Waiting."

Others, like "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" and the aforementioned "A Radio Song", are Scheff's imagined sequels to Okkervil River's rustic cover of Tim Harden's folk-pop masterpiece "Black Sheep Boy", the album's stunning opener. Spindly acoustic guitar gets swept away by Jonathan Meiburg's rich piano swells in Okkervil River's version. Then, a contradiction called "For Real" takes from the Tweedy manual the jarring guitars and warm keyboard ooze of Summerteeth, and you feel a cold, sharp slap across your face and the tough-love comfort of your mother's arms.

Electronic washes and bird noises flesh out the sparse acoustic guitar textures of "A Radio Song", and Scheff's hurt vocals tell of a strained relationship between father and son. Connections fail and the Black Sheep Boy dissolves in "syringe or in shower stall" in the raging emotional river that is "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" - an epic recounting of a prodigal life gone wrong in which Scheff cries out for reunion: "So come back to your life on the lam/So come back to your old black sheep man/I am waiting on hoof and on hand/I am waiting, all hated and damned." As the song soars, there's tragedy in Scheff's voice and hope for redemption, even as the house of the Black Sheep Boy's family crumbles under the weight of its shame.

It's hard not to stare in open-mouthed amazement at the sheer brilliance of Black Sheep Boy, though you're trying to clinically dissect all the elements that make it so. There's still the matter of "A Stone" hanging out there, like wet clothes drying on a line and billowing in the breeze. Shuffling to blocky drums and fragile piano, it's the most beautiful song in Okkervil River's stunning catalog. The despair in Scheff's vocals is palpable as he describes the type of cold-hearted man the woman he loves is drawn to. "You love a stone, because it's smooth and it's cold" and "You love white veins/you love hard grey/the heaviest weight/the clumsiest shape/the earthiest smell/the hollowest tone," he sings in a forlorn voice. There's so much pain in his voice it's hard to listen to, but then he allows you to wrap yourself in the warm blankets of horns that rise and fall, and you feel safe - for the time being.

Buried alive in the bleak Appalachian folk of Oldham's I See A Darkness, and still breathing in the humid pop air of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy is a beautiful, decaying mansion of alt-country artistry that's reduced to ruins by the sins of its flawed characters. You can imagine listening to it on the back porch of your retirement cabin in the woods as the days waste away and the past comes to haunt you. The heartbreaking, sweeping melodies, the hard-bitten characters and their fragile resolve, and the stately playing of Okkervil River's musicians will stick in your craw forever - and so will Scheff's emotional delivery. It's what The Cure's Robert Smith would sound like if he grew up in a coal miner's son in West Virginia; there's blood spilling from these songs. There's the sadness of an old man haunted by the pain he's caused and the knowledge that he can't go back and change any of it - I imagine when I'm listening to Black Sheep Boy when I'm in my seventies, I'll want to do the same thing and fall deathly quiet when I find out I can't.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad

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