Okkervil River, Typhoon

The Silver Gymnasium takes place in 1986 in the small town of Meriden, NH.

Okkervil River bandleader Will Sheff grew up in this isolated hamlet of fewer than 500 residents. His parents taught at a boarding school there. But when he went away to college, his father accepted a new job in Worcester, MA. Will had no reason to return to Meriden again, yet it held sway over his imagination. "Meriden was always a special place," he acknowledges. "Because it was locked away in my memory, I began to romanticize it." The more he saw of the world, the more Meriden, NH seemed like someplace he'd conjured in his head.

That overlap between the ordinary and the otherworldly resonates throughout these eleven new songs. Referring to how an emerging adolescent consciousness reconciles the familiar with the unexpected, Sheff likens the spirit of The Silver Gymnasium to "an action figure you found in the woods... New Hampshire is the woods, the '80s is the action figure, but neither of them is interesting to me on their own; it's the way they go together."

Other years and locations appear throughout the lyrics, but the action always circles back to the mid-1980s and Meriden, NH, and a young man with one foot still in childhood, yet also aware of mysterious changes underway. "When I talk on the record about my adult life or I'm looking back on my time in Texas, that's all through the prism of remembering that starting point. This is a lot more straight-up autobiography and how that period relates to how I feel in my life now."

References to Atari video games, VCR machines, cassette tapes and the films and television shows of that era underscore how pop culture shaped - and disoriented - Sheff and his childhood friends. What secrets were encoded in the laser beams, novelty haircuts, crazy sunglasses and synthesizer riffs that crept into Meriden via radio and MTV? "Picture a country kid with very little knowledge of anything outside of his small town, getting these transmissions from some glamorous other planet."

Sheff enlisted producer John Agnello, who worked on '80s pop staples including Cyndi Lauper's 'She's So Unusual,' John Mellencamp's 'Uh-Huh,' the Outfield's "Your Love," and Scandal's "The Warrior," to evoke the era's spirit. "I loved that he came up on all these records that I was listening to when I was a kid. He's an old school producer who listens to songs, helps with structures, and sees the entire project." Agnello's credits also include Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and recent releases by The Thermals and Kurt Vile.

There were other influences, too. In keeping with the mid-'80s mindset, Sheff drew inspiration from the challenges faced by seasoned singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Tom Petty as the MTV era unfolded, and how their new work integrated synthesizers and more succinct song structures. He also looked to young adult books where youthful protagonists map uncharted terrain without adult interference: 'Danny, The Champion of the World' by Roald Dahl; 'My Side of the Mountain' by Jean Craighead George; 'Lizard Music' by Daniel Pinkwater. The map of Meriden featured in the artwork is deliberately drawn from a child's eye view.

From the jaunty piano opening of "It Was My Season," to the sing-along choruses of "Down Down the Deep River" and "All The Time Every Day," joie de vivre permeates The Silver Gymnasium -even in more reflective moments like "Lido Pier Suicide Car." Messages of encouragement and reassurance crop up repeatedly. From its inception, Sheff imagined this as an album that might live in your car's tape deck for years, the cassette art fading slowly from sun damage. "I wanted to make a record that was friendly, sweet and compassionate, and made people feel good when they heard it," he explains. Friendship, rather than romantic love, lies at the heart of nearly all the record's relationships.

Although The Silver Gymnasium is Okkervil River's seventh studio full-length, the idea for this album has been percolating in Sheff's head for years. He even created a hypertext fiction website populated with characters and places from Meriden while in college. "I was fully aware this was something I was going to do... eventually." Once he finally started, the melodies and words flowed forth quickly, with minimal fuss. The recording, which was done in Brooklyn, NY and Austin, TX over a period of "a month and change," felt equally untroubled.

"Other musicians and old friends would come visit me in the studio and say, 'I can't believe how calm you seem.' But it's true, I felt very level-headed the whole time." Making The Silver Gymnasium was one of the least stressful episodes of Sheff's creative life - and yielded Okkervil River's finest work to date. "When things flow out easily, that's often a good sign. Making 'Black Sheep Boy' was like that, too, but this is our best record. It's certainly the one I like the most."

And you don't have to be from New England or born in the twentieth century to appreciate it. "I'm not standing on top of the mountain, screaming that my childhood was special and everyone should pay attention to it," Sheff concludes. That's not the point at all. "I am a firm believer that if you make your work very honest and personal, then it's going to be meaningful to people who aren't like you but have feelings like yours."

Dear Reader,

I don't remember much, but I remember this one thing with clarity.

I was in the backyard looking up at my father; he was bent over raking leaves, explaining to me over his shoulder what it meant to be a good man–to keep your word and do the work you set out to do. I was a child then and the words were a mystery, having little conception of what kind of man I would be, what sort of work I would do or how I would set about doing it. A few years later, as all my friends were entering adolescence, I got sick. Mine was puberty with a vengeance.

In my last letter I made mention of my illness. Since then I have been asked about it often and feel I should elaborate on its significance. The illness itself offers a tempting narrative hook, but while it is romantic to dwell on the individual suffering, what matters is the universal implication: Once on the other side one finds that there are no sides, that there exists no great partition between sickness and health, only various stages of dying and various ways of surviving that death.

This discovery had on me the effect of leveling all logical binaries to be replaced by ambivalence–not only could I not tell the difference between sickness and heath, but had further difficulty telling friends from enemies, progress from regress, love from resentment, sometimes even women from men. I realized that if I were to accomplish anything it would be to recover some kind of meaning in what my friend Zach Schomburg called the Wild Meaninglessness. You can consider it one very bewildered man's attempt to explain the universe, to himself, in the language of bewilderment.

I had a lot of help. Without my friends in typhoon this music would have never reached your ears. It is thanks to them that these songs are songs and not just a bunch of quasi-apocalyptic ramblings. We recorded them on a farm in Happy Valley, OR while we lived there for a short, utopian six weeks in the spring and summer of 2012. The record is a collection of seminal life moments, in more or less chronological order, glimpsed backwards in the pale light of certain death, brought to life by a remarkable group of people who hold as I do that the work is somehow important.

When we started working on White Lighter, I had reason to believe that it would be the last thing I ever did.

It is now six months since we finished. I'm still here and there's still work to be done.

k.r.m. 6.21.2013

Lady Lamb The Beekeeper

More than anything, Aly Spaltro has 20,000 second-hand DVDs to thank for her first album. Despite being recorded at a proper studio in her recently adopted home of Brooklyn, Ripely Pine showcases songs conceived during her tenure at Bart's & Greg's DVD Explosion in Brunswick, Maine. Little did customers know, the same store they'd drop off their Transformers movies was providing the ideal four-year cocoon for the development of a major musical talent.

Aly worked the 3pm-11pm shift. Each night, after locking up, she'd walk past Drama and Horror, pull out her music gear from behind a wall of movies, and write and record songs until morning broke. She did this every day, drawing strength from the monotony of her routine.

During those nightly creative spells, Spaltro tested out multiple techniques, approaches and instrumentation. She brought whatever state she was in that day to the music, which served as raw expressions of her lyrical thoughts. Anger, confusion, love, happiness, and sadness reigned, and the songs ran rampant, with little form or structure. Isolated for those many hours, Aly let melodies morph together, break apart, and pair up. This is how she taught herself to write music and sing.

Spaltro chose to give herself a band name, because she had only two outlets for giving out her music; Bart's & Greg's, and a record store next door, the beloved independent Bull Moose. She arranged her CDs on the counters as free offerings, and seeing how she was often the employee at the register, didn't tell people it was her music.

That's how Lady Lamb the Beekeeper became one of the most beloved performers in Portland. Her live shows were unhinged, as melodies followed an internal logic only apparent to Spaltro herself. She sang and played guitar, and the songs offered a vivid yet brief snapshot into her expanse world. Their full glory remained in her head for reasons of access and cost. And anyway, who the hell would be able to play along with her, seeing how they followed no formal logic? Thus, she developed as a solo performer, careening from hums to screams within seconds, but always maintaining self-control.

At 23, with five years of taking music seriously under her belt, when she ventured to the next milestone—recording an album. This would be the first time she did so in a professional studio (not just her and her 8-track) and the first time she shared the process with anyone else. Luckily, she met Nadim Issa at Let 'Em Music in Brooklyn. He was taken enough by her abilities to dedicate nine full months towards the recording of Ripely Pine, and she with his producing abilities to ease comfortably into making him a part of her recording process. She wrote everything. All the songs, most of the arrangements. And the two of them assembled an album that finally fit what existed in Spaltro's mind. Keeping the songs' stark rawness, the record is a pure representation of her sound.

Ripely Pine shouts the introduction of a new talent from every groove. Here, finally, are recordings of Lady Lamb that come as close as possible to conveying the intense majestry of her live shows. And, much like her performances live, a narrative breathes through the record's progression. The album opens with urgency and anger, settles into reconciliation and reciprocation, and ultimately reaches towards resolution, realizing infatuation leads to a loss of self; instead, embracing one's own strengths is the most powerful thing of all.

No surprise that Spaltro ultimately sings a mantra of individuality. A listen to Ripely Pine proves she has a lot to say for herself and certainly doesn't need anybody's help to do it.

Collaborating with Issa kind of ruled, though. And it's going to be next to purely awesome seeing her play with a full band.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. You. Here. First.

Psychic Taco Rock.


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Okkervil River, Typhoon with Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, Hundred Visions

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