Chances are you’re not going to hear too many albums this year that open with a track about a surgical procedure! In fact, you probably won’t hear too many albums this year that sound quite like Okkervil River’s latest offering, ‘In the Rainbow Rain’. Based out of Austin, Texas and fronted by singer/songwriter Will Sheff, the band, in various incarnations, have been around since the late ‘90s; this is their 9th major album release to date and the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2016 album ‘Away’. Okkervil River are one of those bands that seem to be almost permanently on the cusp of breaking through to the big time and, on the evidence of this latest release, it’s a surprise that they still haven’t made that big breakthrough.
‘In the Rainbow Rain’ is a competent, well produced and well performed album, full of upbeat, lively songs that have a real sense of fun about them. In contrast to their last album, which was a more downbeat, introspective affair, Sheff has said that he set out to make an album that was a “declaration of hope” and it is that sense of positivity that runs strongly through this recording. At times slightly reminiscent of the Flaming Lips, the songs are suffused with bright splashes of guitar and broad swathes of synthesiser sounds, along with occasional stabs of horns and other interesting instrumentation.
The songs themselves are clever and often witty, if a little wordy – the album’s penultimate song ‘External Actor’ leaves you wondering when Sheff finds time to breathe given all the words he tries to cram into the song!
The album kicks off with that operation song, ‘Famous Tracheotomies’ which is exactly what it says; a song that includes a list of famous people who have gone through a tracheotomy. And it’s an interesting list, including Dylan Thomas, Gary Coleman, Ray Davies, Craig David and, of course, Sheff himself! Who knew he was in such distinguished company?! It’s a clever song, if a little explicit on the detail at times – possibly not for the squeamish! But even on such a serious subject the light touch and the humour is there; in this case a particularly whimsical picking out of the main melody of Ray Davies’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ as the song fades out – a nice touch.
‘Don’t Move Back to LA’ is another song that does what it says on the tin – a song exhorting friends not to move to L.A! This is the first single from the album and Sheff has stated that it’s a song he’s particularly pleased with and one that also addresses his own feelings about relocating from his native New York. Sheff seems to be strong on song titles that don’t leave you in a lot of doubt as to what they’re about; another example would be album closer ‘Human Being Song’, with its slightly bleak lyrics – “It’s hard to be a Human Being, just seeking, needing, feeling pain from things you can’t articulate”. It’s when you get to the end of the album that you realise that, for all the upbeat arrangements and the thread of hope and positivity that run through the album it does have a darker side, especially when you really listen to some of those lyrics with their references to trauma, betrayal and shame. This is a good thing, because without that slightly sour undercurrent the album could come across as a bit twee and over sugary. Perhaps this is why the band are still chasing that elusive big breakthrough – perhaps, sometimes, they’re just a bit too subtle for their audience.
Okkervil River are due in the UK for gigs in early Autumn. It will be interesting to see how their intelligent brand of soft rock is received, in a live setting, on this side of the pond.
Stylish and fun new album from a band who deserve wider recognition.