Black Sheep Boy
With each new Okkervil River record, Will Sheff's feral yowl and passionate prose grow more adept at undoing his listeners' defenses — especially knee-jerk cynicism — and cinching their heartstrings to the music's roiling emotions. Credit has to go to the rest of the band on Black Sheep Boy for successfully expanding their palette again as they have on each of the band's four full lengths. It starts here with the opening Okkervil original, "For Real," a gory, visceral introduction to the Black Sheep. (A brief cover of folk icon Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy" opens the record proper.) Unlike the typical Okkervil song (as if there were anything typical about this band), where Shef's plaintive voice stands out in relief against the gentle musical backdrop, the start/stop, stuttering power chords of "For Real" match Shef's unhinged intensity, goading the singer on like a red flag in front of a bull. Before fans of the previous records commence worrying, they need not, as the Wurlitzer, vibraphone and lap steel still play prominent roles. But elsewhere, "Black" comes on full throttle, recalling — and perhaps surpassing — the insistent momentum of Arcade Fire's songs, and "The Latest Toughs" is a jaunty, summer pop song with Stax-like horn blasts of the kind featured during the golden age of AM radio. It's exciting to hear the band grow musically in such a confident manner, but as long as Shef is the singer Okkervil's trademark remains the loping country lament, vocals front and center. Shef confesses he is a frustrated fiction writer, but his narratives are so well crafted they read like mini-stories delivered in a frantic yet coherent rush. The dramatic nature of the whole Okkervil package — vocals, lyrics, music, even William Schaff's intricate and disturbing cover art — lends it the theatrical nature of Neutral Milk Hotel's masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an admitted influence on Shef and his band. And with Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River gets closer still to delivering an equally unique and passionate portrayal of the human heart.
Track to burn: "For Real"
Jon Spencer/Matt Verta-Ray
This is probably the most accessible record Jon Spencer's ever recorded. His first group, Pussy Galore, declared itself a noise band and lived up to those expectations with vigor. His next outfit, Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion, also lived up to its billing, deconstructing the melody and format of that genre into noise so loud that audience members at the '98 Texaco Jazz Festival in NYC's Battery Park were seen fleeing the tent with hands over their ears when Spencer cranked up.
For this side project, Heavy Trash, Spencer teamed up with guitarist Matt Verta-Ray of punk blues outfit Speedball Baby. It's ostensibly a rockabilly record, but that's just the jumping off point. It's a skewed, nostalgic stew of sound-alikes. T-Rex's Marc Bolan lives again, swimming in reverb on "Dark Hair'd Lover." "Lover Street" features Lou Reed as Elvis. "The Loveless" is John Hiatt channeling Jerry Lee: "I'm a mean sonuva bitch/I'm drinking gasoline/I'm loveless — ah." "Justine Alright" could be sub-titled Mink DeVille goes Western. "Under The Waves" is probably the most interesting offering: Lou Reed does Marty Robbins, arranged by Leonard Cohen and Dick Dale. Psychobilly practitioners beware — these boys play it like inmates.
Track to burn: "The Loveless"
The more you learn about the outlandish project of Nouvelle Vague's Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux — which was to recruit current female French pop stars to perform punk and new wave classics that they'd never heard, and to do so using the bossa nova style — the more you realize of course it had to work. The preposterous nature of it was precisely the hook to draw open-minded listeners in; word of mouth would do the rest. As for the singers, unfamiliarity with the material was an ally against the weight of historical criticism and the cheap cynicism of hipster irony, resulting in covers sometimes nearly as engaging as the originals — albeit for very different musical reasons.
The relatively obscure "In a Manner of Speaking" by Tuxedomoon, and the Clash's troubling punk call to arms, "Guns of Brixton" are delivered with equal vigor and genuine pathos by Camille, the standout of the French singers. Her delicate reading of the line in the Dead Kennedy's "Too Drunk To Fuck" — "Went to a party/I danced all night/I drank 16 beers/Started up a fight" — is one of the record's high points. Others are the Cure's "Forest," sung by Marina, Melaine Pain's version of PIL's "(This is not) A Love Song," which alters Johnny Lydon's angry snarl into a funeral dirge; and Sir Alice's cutting version of Killing Joke's "Psyche," with matching intensity but completely divergent forms. Such a concept could probably only come from the French, where an innate arrogance — otherwise known as self-confidence unchecked — would allow them to believe that their insane idea would work simply because they thought of it. More power to to 'em, says I.
Track to burn: "Guns of Brixton" (Camille)