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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Okkervil River - A full workout, 16 Sept. 2013
This review is from: The Silver Gymnasium (Audio CD)
Should Okkervil River implode tomorrow in sudden break up or be abducted by aliens they will have left us with a one outright work of genius (2003's "Down the river of golden dreams") and a range of other albums which were often brilliant and never ordinary ("The Black Sheep" being the best example). At the core of the consistency displayed by this Austin band over seven albums has been the songs of Will Scheff who has the distinction of being both one of rock's best lyricists and tenors. With the able support of a fine set of musicians, Scheff uses this new album "The Silver Gymnasium" to develop a lyrical theme exploring his own past essentially detailing with the people and places he knew while growing up in Meriden, New Hampshire in the 1980s. It leads to an album which is undoubtedly the least experimental of the bands work thus far. Musical and lyrical complexity has been part of this bands charm but this new album is probably the most accessible they have recorded since 2007s "The Stage Names". The good news is that it is genuinely solid and often beautiful album happily enchanted by the presence of Shearwater's unmistakable Jonathan Meiburg lending his backing vocals to five songs.

The source material provides Scheff with a strong conceptual hook to hang this album upon. Songs like the opening jaunty piano ballad "It was my season" have a singalong quality to them and a hint of Robert Smith. But like all Okkervil River songs they are infused with emotion and a capacity for incorporating multiple musical influences into a five minute window. This is even more pronounced on the smart lyrical word play on one of the albums standout tracks the six minute plus "Down, down in the deep river". In one sense it is highly commercial but Scheff is an expert at slightly subverting the norm not least in the dark hue of the lyrics which speak of a child's fear "We lie awake in our tents and I say, `tell me about your uncle and his friend, `cuz they seem like very bad men,'". This occurs against a joyous backdrop of horns, synths and handclaps which distantly echoes some of the work of Kevin Rowlands. More introspective is the haunting "Lido Pier Suicide Car" until around 4.28 it breaks out into a piece of Scheff led power pop. Other tracks worth seeking out include the slightly weird "Stay Young" where hints of some of the worse excesses of 80s music can be located (is that a Haircut 100 guitar line?). Sure its a bit OTT but also very enjoyable. There is the odd misstep here not least the pounding "Walking without Frankie" which is neither fish nor fowl, while "White" is a bit too crowded with instrumentation which doesn't seem to happily relate to the song structure. All is forgiven on the lovely alt country ballad "Black Nemo" which has Scheff sounding at his best floating above a beautiful melody. Finally whether it was intended or not Scheff has also written the best song that Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes never recorded. In "On the balcony" the horns blow loudly and its leads to song so punchy that could have been gifted by Springsteen.

Overall some may claim that Okkervil River have made an album here that all a bit to clever and commercial. that would be to miss the point. Scheff and the band have undoubtedly taken a more buoyant turn for this new outing. But there are some great songs here (and a couple of duds) which happily confirms this bands reputation as one concerned with the production of smart literate rock music that in this instance wears a broad smile on its face.
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