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"The goal was to push my brain to places it didn't want to go. The idea was to not have any idea - to keep myself confused about what I was doing," frontman Will Sheff says about Okkervil River's newest album. "I produced it myself so that I could extend the songwriting process all the way through to the very last second of recording, so the songs would never really stop changing." The resulting record, 'I am Very Far,' is a startling break from anything this band has done before. By turns terrifying and joyous, violent and serene, grotesque and romantic, it's a celebration of forces beyond our control.
When Okkervil River released their breakthrough 'Black Sheep Boy' in 2005, Uncut wrote that "Sheff's novelistic lyrics and the dexterous blend of country, folk and nervy indie-rock suggest a band approaching the peak of their powers." A New York Times piece on their 2007 follow-up 'The Stage Names' (and its companion album 'The Stand Ins') echoed, "Sheff writes like a novelist," and Pitchfork called him, "One of the best lyric-writers in indie rock." But on 'I am Very Far,' Sheff emerges not only as a songwriter of the highest caliber, but a producer and arranger of singular vision. Abandoning the tidy conceptual arcs of Okkervil River's previous albums, 'I am Very Far' is a monolithic, darkly ambiguous work, one that doesn't readily offer up its secrets.
Work on 'I am Very Far' started in early 2009, after a year spent on the music of others. Sheff contributed vocals to The New Pornographer's album 'Together,' wrote a song for Norah Jones' 'The Fall,' produced an upcoming album for Brooklyn-based Bird of Youth, and helmed the Roky Erickson record 'True Love Cast Out All Evil,' for which his album notes received a GRAMMY nomination. "I'd never worked with Roky before and never produced someone else's record before. It was a life-changing experience," Sheff recalls, "When it was over I felt both completely drained and completely inspired." Immediately upon wrapping up work and leaving Erickson's company, Sheff drove to his home state of New Hampshire for lengthy isolated writing sessions. "I wanted to go back home and re-start writing again, like I'd never written a song previously," he says, "and I wanted the music and lyrics to be both completely wedded together and a little bit beyond my control. I kept trying to write from the state of mind of someone who had just been born, that feeling of being very young and being aware of not existing before a certain moment, which is a feeling I remember having as a kid."
Sheff emerged from the writing process with 30 or so songs, which he narrowed down to 18. In contrast to Okkervil River's usual practice of holing up in one studio for months on end, he opted for a series of short, high-intensity sessions, each in a different location, each employing completely different methods than the one before it. For songs like "Rider" and "Wake and Be Fine," Sheff gathered together a massive version of Okkervil River - two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, and seven guitarists, all playing live in one room - and led them on a week of live-in-the-studio marathon session, performing a single song obsessively over and over for as many as 12 hours to capture just the right take. Songs like "Show Yourself" and "Hanging from a Hit" were worked out in improvisational sessions with the core band, minimally recorded to 8-track tape, and then re-structured and re-written in the editing process. For the strange science-fiction parable "White Shadow Waltz," Sheff self-recorded the entire song and then had Okkervil River re-record every instrumental track on top of that. After basic-tracking was done, Sheff overdubbed the songs with the band's largest instrumental palette to date - not only choral elements and orchestral colors like strings, tympani, tuba and bassoon, but also file cabinets thrown across the room, unreeled rolls of duct tape, and, on "Piratess," a solo created out of a fast-forwarding and rewinding boombox. Finishing the record from home, Sheff constantly edited and reworked the album, reinventing the song structures, re-recording vocals, re-writing until the very last minute, reshaping even the tiniest of details, ultimately creating an album that plays not only as a lush, seamless epic, but also as the most deeply personal effort of his career.
What can listeners expect? Richer and weirder than 'The Stage Names' and deeper and moodier than even 'Black Sheep Boy,' 'I am Very Far' is dense, fragmented, opaque. A reverie of uncertainty, it feels at once disorienting and oddly familiar, threatening and friendly. Okkervil River have thrown away all maps and compasses but they continue to chart their way, unblinking, toward destinations unknown.
When does a musician finally hit upon his or her particular "sound"? For some, it bursts forth from their body fully formed; for others, it takes months or sometimes years of trial-and-error. For Mackenzie Scott, the singer-songwriter from Nashville who performs under the name Torres, the foundation and framework of her distinctive sound were already in place but it just needed that one crucial final piece.
"My family pitched in to get me a Gibson 335 last year for Christmas," she says. "I didn't quite find the sound I was looking for until I started playing electric." Listen to her self-titled debut album and you'll hear just how crucial that instrument is to her songs now. The delicacy and intimacy that was born from acoustic roots are still there, but now that she's fully plugged in, her music has intensified, with deeper shades of darkness creeping into the mix.
The album also carries with it a rawness and humanism that only serves to increase the feelings of isolation, longing, fear, guilt, revelation, and resolution that Scott expresses beautifully throughout. Torres was recorded over the course of five days in a Tennessee home owned by fellow singer-songwriter Tony Joe White (he of "Polk Salad Annie" fame), and recorded live to tape with as few overdubs as could be managed.
"I wanted this record to be the most honest version of itself that it could be," the 22-year-old songwriter says, "and ultimately that meant that it needed to remain unpolished and fairly raw. I left in a few imperfect vocal takes because I thought it sounded more human that way."
The effect provides the album with a rough-hewn beauty. The cracks that sharpen the edges of songs like the pointed "Jealousy & I" or the drum machine-driven "Chains" gives listeners an even starker look into the heart of these deeply felt songs. And if you lean in close, you might be able to hear the creak of the wooden floors in the house and the hum of the tape machine capturing it all.
To preserve the sonic warmth and integrity of this gritty, heartfelt album, Torres will be available on double vinyl, as well as on CD and digital formats. No matter how you listen to it, though, the songs will cut right to the bone. Scott spills every inch of her soul on these tracks, reflecting the joys and sorrows, and the unpredictability and uncertainty of life and love.
TORRES is Mackenzie Scott
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