New Band of the Month: July – Reflection

For the Seventh month of the New Band feature, I selected indie folkies,  Okkervil River (read my initial thoughts here).

Now, this is what I’m talking about.  The whole idea of doing this every month this year was to hopefully surprise myself by discovering that a band I’d previously ignored was really this truly great missing link in my music library.  Alas, while I have enjoyed a lot of the music I’ve listened to so far (most of it, even), none of it has necessarily jumped out at me as Music I Must Have.

Until now.  Okkervil River is so perfectly up my alley that I’m completely dismayed that I haven’t been listening to them all along.  This is totally a case of ‘too many bands, too little time.’  I had no reason to think I wouldn’t like them, but I just never gave them a try.  Well, damn, I’m glad I have now.

I love the lyrics worthy of great literature.  I love the music that somehow manages to feel intimate while hovering into epic territory.  I love Will Sheff’s voice, despite the fact that he clearly has a limited range and rarely breaks free of the talk-sing style.  Actually, I think that’s the secret weapon of the band, because when he does strain his voice for greater emotional weight, it’s wrought with pain and starkly open-hearted pathos.  I could see how that might grow wearisome for some listeners, but for me it packs a consistent, satisfying wallop.  It’s like a slightly less-pretty but rawer version of the National, and I love the National.

Seven months into this mini-project, and I’ve found my first true, “Oh My God, How Have I Never Listened To Them?” band.  It was worth the wait.

Will I Buy An Album?  Yes, yes, and yes.  The only real question is, which one.  Everytime I listened to an album, I kept thinking, “Oh, this is the one I’ll buy.”  And then I put on the next and liked it even more.  The more I delve into this band, the more likely I’ll be to just keep picking up their entire catalog.  So, where will I start?  Probably with Down The River of Golden Dreams, just because it’s an early album of theirs, but the next time I have some extra expendable cash (when will that be?) I’ll download as many as I can get.  Yes, I’m that enamored.

Favorite Song:  Again, kind of hard to nail it down.  I admit (like the previously mentioned, the National), a lot of Okkervil River’s songs are similar in tone and style, so it’s hard to distinguish just one song and say, “Oh, that’s the stand out track.”  This isn’t a singles type of band.  But when that tone and style fits me so perfectly, I’m not complaining.

I still dig “A Stone,” the first song of theirs I ever heard, but to pick that one would be a cop out.  So, I don’t know, “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks.”   Why?  Because it’s the track I’m listening to as I type this (plus, it’s awesome).  Honestly, I can’t pick, which is what is so exciting about this month.  I have truly, deeply, fallen for this band.

Next Month: Posers


New Band of the Month: July – Okkervil River

Every month this year, I’m dedicating myself to getting into a new band.  By ‘new band’, what I really mean is an old band who I’ve known of for awhile but have for one reason or another never checked out.  Maybe they were a genre I wasn’t into, maybe they were the favorite band of someone I didn’t like, maybe I was just lazy.  Whatever reason, I’m going to spend the month trying to get into them.

If, at the end of the month, I find myself enjoying the music I’ll buy an album.  And if not, I’ll save my money for something else.

My New Band for July is:

Okkervil River


From the wiki page

Okkervil River is an indie rock band from Austin, Texas. Formed in 1998, the band takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. They self-released their first album, Stars Too Small to Use, which led them to the South by Southwest music festival. After recording their first album in a garage, they signed with Jagjaguwar. Okkervil River continued by releasing four more albums, including the critically lauded concept album Black Sheep Boy.

My personal history with Okkervil River:

One song: A Stone.  That’s it.  As far as I know, I’ve never heard any other song by the band.  Frankly, though, that’s probably one song more than the vast majority of the population.  Unlike, say Bruce Springsteen or, even, King Crimson, Okkervil River isn’t one of those massively influential acts who I’ve just somehow avoided.  So why spend a month on an indie band that most people will never hear the name of, let alone listen to their music?

Because they are one of those indie bands that resides in the general sphere of my musical taste and yet I’ve just never given them a chance.  There isn’t a reason, as far as I know.  They weren’t the favorite band of someone I hated.  They don’t remind me of an ex-girlfriend.  There is no negative association with them at all.  They have for some unknown reason just never entered into my library, even though based on their genre bedfellows and that one song, A Stone, I’m pretty sure I would love their stuff.

And this isn’t like LCD Soundsystem, where they’re an Important Indie Band who turns out to be rather boring when I finally give them a chance.  Or, at least, I hope that’s not the case.

But I guess that’s what I’m going to find out.  Any of you hip indie kids who were into Okkervil River way before they were cool, let me know which of their albums is the absolute bee’s knees.  And if you’ve never even heard of them but your curiosity has been piqued, why not give them a chance with me this month?

Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been a bit occupied with Fan Fair, an orgy of every big name in the contemporary pop world of Country music that brought in thousands upon thousands of tourists from across the nation in order to buy boots, wear jean shorts and eat steak and spaghetti.  Oh yeah, and listen to music.

It’s been a long few days.

Country Music

As a teenager, it was simple to say I didn’t listen to country music.  It was a definitive statement, easy to defend.  I liked rock and punk and even some pop.  Country music need not apply.

But it’s harder to dismiss the genre whole hog these days.  Ryan Adams, Old 97’s, Wilco, Lucero; all acts I love that all make songs in the vein of Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons.  On the surface, Alt-Country is almost more a statement of politics than music style.  Country musicians are Republicans who hate Arabs and just want to drink beer or fall in love or both.  Alt-Country musicians are, well, not Democrats, but liberal-ish, and they hate themselves more than anyone else and drink hard liquor and split their time between Austin and New York City or Chicago and the women therein.

Those are gross simplifications, not fair or all that accurate (though, I think the Dixie Chicks can attest to the dangers of being a Pop Country act that doesn’t fly the Conservative flag).  To be honest, I’ve been having a hard time trying to explain why I can love a legitimately country ballad by Ryan Adams such as “In My Time Of Need” (as country in subject and tone as any song out there) and yet I cringe at the thought of listening to Toby Keith or Keith Urban.

The Evolution of a Genre

Part of it is how country music has evolved.  The music of Cash and Parsons (or Loretta Lynn for that matter) was filled with rebellion.  You could make a pretty strong case for a connection between truly old school country music and the punk ethos.  Obviously, country music is also rooted heavily in Christianity, too, which creates an interesting dichotomy, an internal conflict that Cash personified dramatically.

One need only listen to “The Pill” to know that country music has not always been a bastion of socially conservative family values.  In fact, country music is probably the first place women in music were allowed to espouse feminists notions of freedom and independence (music history majors, feel free to correct me).

I enjoy the rebellion of country music just as I enjoy the rebellion of punk music.  Just as I enjoyed the inherent rebellion of the Beat Generation.  Perhaps you’re sensing a pattern.  I like artists who encourage a healthy dose of status quo-questioning.

And this is, I suppose, what I dislike about so much of modern pop country music.  *Warning:  I am about to make a sweeping generalization that probably isn’t fair, and I’m okay with that.  It’s just my impression based on personal experience.*  The ‘rebellion’ in a lot of today’s country music feels fake, like a market researched version of rebellion (this is my problem with a lot of modern punk music, too).  In the heart of the Bush years, when social and political conservatism was running rampant, a lot of country musicians were writing ‘rebel’ music that seemed to imply extreme patriotism and rabid xenophobia was somehow subversive and cool.  *Here is where I point to one example, because it’s the only one that comes to mind.*  For Example.

Now, my issue with this sort of song isn’t exactly the sentiment (after 9/11, we were all in a bit of an ass-kicking mood), but rather how manipulative and manufactured it feels.  “And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.”  Really?  For a song that’s subtitled, “The Angry American,” it has less bite than a karoake version of “I Will Survive.”

(Compare that song to punk goddesses Sleater-Kinney and their post-9/11 album One Beat, specifically the angry, confused, heartbroken and terrified masterpiece, “Far Away.”)

It’s hard to take modern country music seriously as the music of rebels when it’s the biggest selling music genre in the country and it’s blaring out of the SUVs of pretty little princess-sorority girls.  Nothing against sorority girls, but they just aren’t exactly known for their aversion to authority.

Silly Love Songs

The other strain of modern country music that I just can’t relate to is the hyper-silly, overly romantic ballads.  I blame Taylor Swift.  Actually, I don’t really have a problem with Taylor.  She writes music like a teenage girl would write, and that’s what she is (or was), so I can’t fault her.  But, as she and her fans grow up, their outlook should, too.  If she’s 30 and still writing heartbroken songs about losing the boy next door (even though she’s a fucking hot blond), then someone needs to cauterize her mouth shut.  (She’d instantly be 200% more popular with men.)

(I appreciate that her “Mean” is sort of a country music, less-overtly gay version of “Born This Way“, so more power to her; still not my cup of tea.)

And so, that is my problem with modern pop country music.  It feels childish and lacks subtlety.  Alt-Country, on the other hand, seems like it’s written by adults with realistic (pessimistic) views of romance and nuanced understandings of our global environment.

Is that an unfair and biased view of the genres?  Uh, yes, obviously.  I’ve been saying so all along.

But it’s just music.  Music either affects you or it doesn’t, and for that reason, I find Whiskeytown’s “Dancing with the Women at the Bar” to be a gorgeous, emotionally honest work of art, whereas Keith Urban’s “Without You” is sweet but entirely uninteresting to me.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, I like country music.

Just depends who you mean.