Singer-songwriter Will Sheff is constantly hearing songs and seeing movie scenes in his head that comment on real life as it unfolds. It's "what give this mess some grace," as he sings on Okkervil River's The Stage Names, a concept record about making a concept record to deal with—or simply avoid—the wreckage of crumbling relationships and failed dreams. For Sheff, art doesn't merely reflect life, it blurs the distinction between the real world and a more elusive, poetic reality. He desperately wants Okkervil River to be as transcendent for others as his favorite bands and directors are for him, and though he occasionally sabotages himself by trying too hard, his reach matches his grasp more often than not.
Coming off Okkervil River's rustic 2005 breakthrough Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names is a relatively straightforward roots-rock record, rounded out by clever, pop-culture-obsessed songs like "Plus Ones"—which references Paul Simon, ? And The Mysterians, and David Bowie, among others—and the Motown-inspired "A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene." With seven members and an eight-piece string section, Okkervil River is more than capable of making the gloriously messy Big Rock Record that Sheff is chasing. The only weak link, at times, is Sheff, whose melodramatic, caterwauling vocals detract from otherwise keenly observed songs like the pounding opener, "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe." Sheff needn't huff and puff so much. His songs pack enough punch on their own.