"It's funny, pro studio people are obsessed with... having the perfect collector's-item soundboard, a bunch of Neumann mics, and chilled mineral water from the fridge-it's like they forget that the coolest rock and pop recordings, whether Sun Studio rock 'n' roll, or early reggae, or Motown, were done on crappy gear by creative people flying by the seat of their pants."
This is how Okkervil River vocalist Will Scheff explains why he and his Austin, Texas, band recorded songs live-to-tape for Black Sheep Boy, their fourth release, which has critics using up their "album of the year" claims.
Scheff understands the value of imperfection. He proves it every time his voice cracks, every time he foregoes perfect pitch for feeling. The quivering-lip vocals recall the unchecked emotionalism that made Bright Eyes' Fevers & Mirrors and The Decemberists' Her Majesty such winning records. Just like a newborn's dried-apricot eyes can melt the most unfeeling of men, like good porn arouses everyone except for possibly Morrissey-Scheff's ramshackle croon is immediately affecting.
The frontman, who used to be a music critic for the Austin Chronicle and says he was "a really bookish and introverted kid," can also write some great fucking lyrics. It's a talent that garners a lot of comparisons to Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy.
Black Sheep Boy is very loosely based on a character invented by 1960s cult folk singer Tim Harding.
Poor Tim. Not only did heroin ruin him; every time an artist uses his material, they do it to wider acclaim. Bobby Darin turned his song "If I Were a Carpenter" into a top-10 hit. Rod Stewart took "Reason to Believe" to fame.
And now Okkervil River has gone and done it, turning their Hardin homage into an eclipse. On their record, Black Sheep Boy is a sort of sentimental Fight Club-esque figure who's not afraid to draw real or metaphorical blood, including his own. Scheff fantastically describes him as "a monster who is half-sheep and half-human."
"Sometimes I thirst for real cuts/ for real blood/ for real knives, for real crimes," Scheff moans on "For Real." In the song, faint, percussive guitar is occasionally jolted alive with drums until it crescendos with Scheff screaming, "You can't hide! You can't hide!"
Though he goes banshee on that song, most of the time he sings at a conversational volume. And quiet anger is always more dangerous, more insidious, as if Black Sheep Boy is genuinely frightened by his own thoughts.
In a previous interview, Scheff explained he was toying with the notion of reality in "For Real." When asked to elaborate, he answers, "I said that? Yuck. That seems like a vague thing to say.
"I think some people get something out of it that I don't. For example, it's disturbing when I hear it called a "murder ballad.' I think that we live in a world that causes us to wonder if we're insulated from certain primal realities of life. Who knows if we are or if we aren't? I also think that it gets progressively more challenging for some people to get their kicks."
Okkervil's 2003 album Down the River of Golden Dreams impressed critics, including Rolling Stone's David Fricke, who said the band was "ready for worldwide renown."
It hasn't happened yet. They're still an opening band, a role that Scheff finds "hilarious."
"You make about one-tenth what the headliner makes. You load in and see that the headliner has smoked salmon with capers and a sushi spread and a bottle of sake in their dressing room, and the promoter forgot your 24 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon," he jokes. "You get no soundcheck. You're not allowed to play at the same volume as the headlining band. The audience is made up almost entirely of kids who just want you to get the hell off stage. But it's helped us a lot."
With Black Sheep Boy, however, the word-of-mouth is getting louder. It's Scheff's favorite Okkervil album, but he suggests their emergence is a product of spending three years on the road. Last year, he didn't even bother paying for an apartment.
"Sometimes a band puts out their first record, gets lucky and becomes huge immediately," he says. "But it hasn't worked that way for us.
"At the same time, I sort of like that aspect of it. I probably wouldn't have seen some of the interesting things I've seen if I had been living really luxuriously and comfortably on tour. Also, I don't feel like we're afflicted by the same pressure to follow up our very first record with something that strikes the same kind of weird, random chord in the zeitgeist."
Okkervil River plays with Band of Horses and Mt. Egypt at the Casbah on Oct. 21. $8-$10. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. 619-232-HELL.