Okkervil River, Typhoon

Okkervil River

Okkervil River formed in 1998, a band made up of singer and songwriter Will Sheff, drummer Seth Warren, and bassist Zachary Thomas. They gigged around Austin, TX for awhile and self-released a debut EP before finally attracting the attention of a small Indiana label called Jagjaguwar, who released their debut LP 'Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See' and its follow up 'Down the River of Golden Dreams.' Critics took note of Sheff's creative drive and his dense, novelistic lyrics; Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times that "Mr. Sheff uses a rickety voice to disguise wild ambition," and Rolling Stone's David Fricke added that "Singer-songwriter Will Sheff of the haunted-country quartet Okkervil River is ready for worldwide renown."

But worldwide renown eluded Okkervil River, and by 2004 they were running out of money and worn out by a relentless touring schedule. Drummer Seth Warren had moved to California, and bassist Thomas was transitioning out of the band to spend more time with his family. Sheff decided that if the next Okkervil River record didn't find an audience he'd quit playing music. He returned from the road and rented a shack out by the Austin Airport, and the new lineup of Okkervil River -- now augmented by drummer Travis Nelsen and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper -- would rehearse there by day and Sheff would sleep on the floor by night. The material they were working up was dark and sometimes disturbing, with a deep romantic undercurrent; it was inspired by a turbulent relationship Sheff was going through at the time, by the political climate of the mid-2000s, and by the life story of influential folksinger Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1980. Sheff decided he'd name the album after Hardin's tune "Black Sheep Boy."

On 'Black Sheep Boy,' Sheff unpacked Hardin's two-minute recording into an expansive song cycle, woven through with themes of violence, abuse, oblivion, and longing, with periodic appearances by the title character, depicted on the iconic cover (by longtime Okkervil River illustrator William Schaff) as a grotesque horned creature with burning fire for eyes. Recorded in the dim, rickety garage studio of producer Brian Beattie, Black Sheep Boy overlaid raw electric rock, off-kilter pop, and sprawling balladry with a melodic and lyrical sensibility drawn from old American folk music. It blended acoustic textures like pump organ and mandolin with analog synths and manipulated electronic soundscapes mailed to Sheff by Seth Warren from his apartment in Berkeley, California. It sounded rough and handmade, raw and emotional, and unlike any record of its time.

Released by Jagjaguwar in early 2005, 'Black Sheep Boy' is now regarded as Okkervil River's breakthrough album. NY Times raved, "[Sheff] writes like a novelist. His songs are full of elegant phrases and unexpected images." Pitchfork named it one of the "Greatest Albums Of The Decade" and The Guardian declared it "a work of riveting ambition." Packed tours and festival dates followed, and the album's first single "For Real" found its way into the ears of Sheff's idol Lou Reed, who named Okkervil River one of his favorite contemporary bands, asked them to open for him and told Sheff, "You have a classic rock and roll voice."

On a break from touring, Sheff and a now completely reformulated Okkervil River recorded 'Black Sheep Boy Appendix,' an EP that combined re-tooled outtakes from the original sessions with new material to create a seamless whole piece, a new take on the 'Black Sheep Boy' saga.

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of this iconic album, Jagjaguwar is proud to present the 'Black Sheep Boy Anniversary Edition,' a three-LP set combining the classic 'Black Sheep Boy' album and its counterpart the 'Black Sheep Boy Appendix' with an all new unreleased album entitled 'There Swims a Swan': full-band recordings made six months prior to the release of 'Black Sheep Boy' which illuminate the album's roots in the traditional American songbook. Featuring beautiful, emotional readings of songs popularized by such artists as Washington Phillips, Lead Belly, the Louvin Brothers, and Roscoe Holcomb, 'There Swims a Swan' takes the listener on a trip through the songs that inspired Sheff while composing 'Black Sheep Boy' and reads like a run-through of that album's themes. 'Black Sheep Boy' is celebrated for its album artwork as well as its music, and the Anniversary Edition collects that artwork in a meticulously reworked package, combining every previous element of William Schaff's imagery with a large new piece by Schaff depicting an updated 'Black Sheep Boy.' The release also includes lengthy liner notes by Will Sheff walking the listener through the circumstances surrounding the album.

For Okkervil River fans (the most high-profile of whom was recently revealed to be President Barack Obama, who included "Down Down the Deep River" on his 2015 summer playlist), the Anniversary Edition is a loving, comprehensive, richly expanded presentation of a record many consider to be one of the band's best. For those new to the band, this might be the best place to start, the first step on a long road, the opening to a forest you can get lost in.

If a Fellini film, a Bosch painting, and a Rorschach drawing had a collective sound, it would be Typhoon's new release. The 14-track record Offerings is a musical and lyrical excursion into surreal imagery, eerie soundscapes, and an emotionally jarring narrative.

The 70-minute album for Roll Call Records, which is the Portland, Oregon indie rock band's fourth studio album, centers on a fictional man who is losing his memory, and in turn, his sense of self. "I've always been preoccupied with memory, losing memory, and trying to recapture memory. I wanted to explore the questions: What does a person become if they don't know where they came from? What is the essential quality of the person if you strip away all memory?" explains singer/songwriter Kyle Morton.

Motivated in part by his own preoccupation with "losing it," Morton also found a treasure trove of inspiration through various books, art, and film he was immersed in during the writing of this record. "I was watching a lot of David Lynch, and thought a lot about the Christopher Nolan movie, Memento, and Fellini's 8 ½. And there were a lot of books on my nightstand that played into this. It made it a much darker album for sure," he says.

Offerings is divided into four movements (Floodplains, Flood, Reckoning, and Afterparty) to represent the mental phases the main character goes through where he first realizes that something is wrong, then struggles through the chaos of his situation, and finally moves into acceptance before succumbing to his dreadful fate.

"I wanted this record to be a journey, like Dante's Inferno. It kicks off with 'Wake,' where the character wakes up and he's shitting the bed and doesn't know what's going on. I was going for a specific feel that Samuel Beckett does so well," says Morton, who was reading Beckett’s Three Novels, specifically Malloy, while writing the song's lyrics. "Beckett would call it a literature of impoverishment where he'd strip away as much as he could so he could get a feeling of essence and scarcity; that's what I tried to do musically and lyrically here."

Mission accomplished. Morton also masterfully makes a parallel with the character's journey to the state of the world today starting with the second track, "Rorschach," which looks at the age of information and collapse of meaning.

"But, by the third song, 'Empiricist,' there's a regression to the womb where the character is back in his bed at home, talking about his range of motion shrinking. This first movement ends with 'Algernon' [taken from one of Morton's favorite short stories, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes], where he's constantly awakening and in an interrogation with a woman—who the listener should know is his wife, but he doesn't."

Musically, there is a sense of impending doom and chaos throughout the record that mirrors the character's fear and anxiety. "The claustrophobic feeling of only having the present moment and this sense of repetition is musically mirrored with this looping that runs though the record with a through line of choral parts that give it a darker, creepier feel," says Morton.

To set the right tone for the story, Morton went for a less horns, more guitar approach. "We have a little bit of trumpet on this record and a lot of string arrangements. But we really strayed away from the horn arrangements. I wanted it to be a darker, more intense rock record, so it's very guitar-based. It's going back to my rock roots before Typhoon," says Morton.

The concept of what the main character in the album is going through is also meant as a way of explaining cultural memory loss. "I was also reading historian Timothy Snyder and was inspired by his take on how America is at risk of losing their sense of history. If we haven't learned the lessons of our past, historically, we can't recognize when elements come back to haunt us, which is what's happening right now," he adds.

One choral part ("Down in the floodplains waiting on a cure/ Blessed be the water/ May the water make us pure") was especially inspired by current politics. "I had Steve Bannon in mind quite a bit when I was writing these choral parts because I'm taking on this world view that I don't agree with, which is that the world needs a bloody struggle to reset — bring on the demolishing of order," he says.

The character's downward spiral continues through the album's second movement, Flood, while in the third, Reckoning, comes the absolute-zero moment where the character is ready and willing to let go of life. Reckoning kicks off with "Coverings," which is the first song Morton ever co-wrote with a band member — Shannon Steele, who also sings on it.  (Steele lends her vocals to the end of "Bergeron," as well.)

"'Coverings' takes the story into the devil's mansion where all the rooms are the same representing this repeated infinite present with no reference. For me, this is Hell. And, at this point, our character has lost his marbles," he explains.

"At the same time, on the worldly scale," continues Morton, "this is the point where we don't have any public trust and there's no cultural memory, there's just chaos. People are becoming identical in this collapse of meaning and you have no reference. If there is any point to this record it's that — Without reference, you have an interesting concept of infinity, which can be really bad."

As the album comes to a close with the acoustic "Sleep," the character decides that instead of taking part of the chaos, he'd rather sacrifice himself.  But there is light at the end of this dark, emotional journey. "The secret track, 'Afterparty,' is where he finds peace and freedom. It's his homecoming. He's on the other side of it now and has found his version of Heaven," says Morton.

It's this level of intricacy in Typhoon's storytelling and musicianship that has helped Typhoon become one of indie rock's most revered bands. Their previous album, White Lighter, hit No. 2 on Billboard's Heatseekers Album Chart and got Best of The Year nods from NPR and Paste. Typhoon has brought their, at times, 11-piece live show on the road alongside indie rock peers The Decemberists, Portugal the Man and Grouplove, and sold out major clubs and venues across America.

Adds Morton of Offerings, "I kind of wanted to make a dystopian record. If it's nothing else, it's that. If I could write my own one-line review, I'd think I'd want people to say, 'It's disturbing and unfortunately correct."

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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