"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.
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
Anatomy texts might not show it, but the greatest soul and blues music leaves no doubt that the hip bone is directly connected to the heart -- a fact that's driven home in every note laid down by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. As they prove on their Lost Highway debut, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, the Austin-based combo has the kind of gritty attitude and deliciously greasy groove-consciousness that'd pass muster in the toughest juke joint.
To paraphrase Ike and Tina Turner, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is gives Lewis the chance to play nice and easy as well as nice and rough. He and his bandmates take the latter route more often -- as on the fiery, brass-laced opener "Gunpowder" and the unabashedly horndog anthem "Big Booty Woman." But there's far more than one trick up their collective sleeve, as borne out by the dark New Orleans march "Master Sold My Baby."
"It's weird...people say I come up with all these different kinds of songs, and I guess that's true, but they all just come out naturally," says Lewis, who cites James Brown and Lightnin' Hopkins as two of his bigger influences. "If I sit down and try to write a song, it just sounds contrived. All the songs on this record, I just made up as I went along. I couldn't do a lot of 'em again if I didn't have 'em on tape." That from-the-gut stream-of-consciousness permeates the disc, with Lewis wailing wildly -- in a voice that's one part Joe Tex, one part Tyrone Davis -- through sweat-soaked offerings like the gutbucket "I'm Broke" and "Please, Part Two" as his bandmates turn up the heat, taking a low simmer to a full boil with turn-on-a-dime precision.
"The thing about the band is that we play with each other, not against each other," says Honeybears' guitarist Zach Ernst. "It's not a pissing contest, the way it is in some bands. We communicate with each other without speaking, and I think that has a lot to do with Joe's attitude -- he has an amazing ability to just draw people in. For a lot of people, the blues is a museum piece, but Joe brings it into the moment."
If not for a twist of fate, Lewis might never have gotten up on stage at all. Growing up in the small town of Round Rock, Texas, he was more likely to be found on the football field than in the band room -- but landing a job in an Austin pawn shop put him at a (shall we say) crossroads in life.
"My dad and my uncles listened to soul and blues when I was a kid, but I never really took much notice," says Lewis. "When I was about 19 or 20, I was working in this pawn shop and all these guys would bring in guitars. One day, I started playing around with one and took it home and started teaching myself how to play."
Buoyed by the encouragement of friends, Lewis soon gravitated to the fertile open mic scene of his adopted hometown, where he performed as a solo artist, a period he now laughingly recalls as "horrible...I was usually too drunk or too scared to put on a good show, but people kept asking me to come back."
While he eventually put together a band with a solid lineup, Lewis couldn't capture the mojo he was looking for and was seriously considering retiring from music in his mid-twenties -- until Ernst entered the picture.
"I was on the University of Texas programming board and we'd booked Little Richard to do a show and I immediately thought of Joe," says the guitarist. "I heard he was down on music and was woking at a restaurant shucking oysters, so I approached him as a fan -- and Joe ended up playing the show with his old band."
The plea worked, the gig was explosive, but also a partnership was born. Shortly after that gig, Zach formed a band around Joe and the rough and ready Honeybears' were born. Four weeks later, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears played their first gig. Their stylings quickly drew attention from local tastemakers -- like the Austin Chronicle, which marveled at the singer's ability to "spit lyrics in short bursts of aggression like bricks at glass windows" -- and fellow musicians like Okkervil River and Spoon, both of which tapped him and the Honeybears to hit the road as an opening act.
"Joe's a really special, really natural performer," says Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who thought enough of the band to lend his production skills to the new disc. "We were able to do about 75-percent of the album live, and that's something you very, very rarely do."
To hear Pickwick tell it, their popular Myths 7-inch series was merely a group of rough sketches they'd been developing over the previous two years put to wax. That a CD collection of those "demos" held their hometown Seattle's Sonic Boom Records #1 sales spot for a period of weeks in 2011 shows those six songs amounted to something more than tossed off basement recordings. With a successful year of festival invites and an ever larger string of hometown sell-outs behind them in 2012 the band refocused on recording and have a year later emerged with Can't Talk Medicine. Upgrading from the basement used for Myths and setting up shop in their living room, the band's own multi-instrumentalist Kory Kruckenberg served as engineer. The 13 finished tracks include three re-recorded and fully realized Myths cuts and a collaboration with Sharon Van Etten on lead single "Lady Luck."
"A cool thing about this record," says Kruckenberg, "this house has made its way onto the record. We've tried to include the quirks of living here." Guitarist Michael Parker wryly spins the situation differently saying "our record doesn't sound like a lot of other records because it was recorded in this living room." The choice of a carpeted location may have been a double-edged sword, but the use of this unconventional space was fully compatible with the band's own grittier leanings and desire to establish a unique musical aesthetic. By recording to 1/2 inch tape on an 8 track and incorporating found sounds, Kruckenberg was additionally using a canvas that provided for an intentionally different dynamic than a modern digital effort. Why tape? "It's about dirtiness," Kruckenberg explains referring to the distortion that the taping process itself can imbue on a recorded sound. He reports his final results with a grin, "It's raw."
An audiophile's full attention to every detail shows in the final mix: voices and instruments have the space to assert their full identity and tones shimmer in lengthy decay. The percussive clang of the piano hammers in lead track "Halls of Columbia" are incorporated instead of hidden away. The organ drone in "Window Sill" is elevated from dissonant psych clutter to an eerie foundational element. The harmonies of Parker, keyboardist Cassady Lillstrom, and guest Kaylee Cole are at turns sweet, unsettling and epiphanic. It's all orchestrated to support frontman Galen Disston's gospel growl and build on the mood of his words.
"There is a layer to our songs that I don't think very many people have picked up on," says Disston, who prefers listeners delve into their own imagination with his words over providing a literal history of every lyric. What he will relate is that Can't Talk Medicine mines themes of mental illness. "It's about art making you go crazy," he reveals. "We idolize and value that insanity when it's in the name of art." But as his lyrics also imagine it, life in creative overdrive can be nervous, desperate and grotesque. The refrain in "Window Sill" speaks of planning a defiant suicide and Myths crowd favorite "Hacienda Motel" recounts a risque homicide.
Many of the deeper answers about influences and a preference for mystery can be traced to the band's own voracious interest in music that's mired in obscurity. Reissues from Designer Records, the seminal output of the Black Ark. Robert Pete Williams, Alan Lomax, the Walkmen, The Sonics, and Abner Jay are among the diverse list of names referred to with reverence in the living room. 'Famous L. Renfroe as The Flying Sweet Angel of Joy' is a current well of inspiration for Disston who, like his idol Bob Dylan, has through his own deep exploration of American roots music developed a signature vocal delivery.
Pickwick's DIY history of making & distributing their own records continues into 2013 with the Spring self-release Can't Talk Medicine, initially available digitally via iTunes and on CD at your local CIMS-affiliated independent record shop. The Cold War Kids' Matt Maust is guilty of the album's cover design. The band travels to SXSW in March before embarking on a headlining tour of the continental U.S. in April.