Will Sheff, the haunting, dramatic voice behind folk-rock outfit Okkervil River, prefers if you just call him Will. Don't call him Conor Oberst or Tim Kasher or "alt-country." Don't tell him the cover art from Okkervil River's Sleep and Wake-Up Songs reminds you of Carson Ellis' illustration for the Decemberists' Her Majesty. Basically, if anything he does reminds you of a celebrity, keep it to yourself.
Will Sheff, like every other struggling artist out there, just wants to be himself. So, this is who Will Sheff is: Originally from New Hampshire, Sheff decided at the turn of the millennium that he wanted writing to be fun, so he quit college and started a rock band. "I suddenly felt this great weight lift off of my shoulders," Sheff says. "I thought, 'Oh, my god. I love that idea. That's great. Why not? I can do it.'"
So far there's nothing really unique about Sheff's story, but this is where it gets interesting. See, Sheff happens to be a terribly gifted songwriter with a cadre of great musicians who were willing to join in on his rock-'n'-roll fantasy and move to Austin, Texas. From this mix of talent, friendship and wanderlust, Okkervil (rhymes with "rockerville") River was born.
Sheff and the other Okkervillians toiled in obscurity for a few years, until the band's third full-length, Down the River of Golden Dreams, a release Magnet magazine hailed as the eighth-best album of 2003. But ink in the music rags doesn't pay the rent; Sheff still needs to be called on an alternate cell phone because he doesn't have any minutes on his own. With the release of this year's Black Sheep Boy, however, Sheff hopes 2005 will be a "make it" as opposed to "break it" year for the band. And it very well could be, with Sheff's bursting and breaking vocals and the swelling sounds of his now-six-piece band erupting with more fervor than ever on Black Sheep Boy.
Mention of Conor Oberst and bursting and breaking vocals might sound irritating to most. Perhaps that's why Sheff doesn't like comparisons, because his strained vocal eruptions are anything but irritating and are also very much his own. On "the Bright Eyes thing," Sheff (unconvincingly) says, "I don't really mind it, but I get sort of exasperated at how much people say it. I mean, in any case, [Bright Eyes' Oberst] is selling lots and lots of records. So let them compare me to him."
As far as his music goes, Sheff credits an unrestrained approach as both his weakness and, based on the strength of his band's records, his secret weapon. "Sometimes the melody...and the lines want to say more," he says. "Even though it's really self-indulgent and it does result in, like, an eight-minute-long song, I find it really fun to just keep going, 'OK, what now? What do you want to say now?'"
Okkervil's songs are self-indulgent. Sheff's voice erupts on "For Real" with such vigor that you can hear him spitting as he screams, "You can't hide!" over and over, and that's exactly what sucks you in. A close listen beyond the rollicking, upbeat keyboards and bombastic drums of "Black" reveals a story of past abduction and abuse told by the victim's present lover. Wrapping a cloak of blissful pop and beautifully gothic lullabies around dark, evocative subject matter is Sheff's specialty.
And there's nothing more dark and evocative than the murder ballad, which Okkervil can pull off convincingly, as heard on "Westfall" from 2002's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See. Those songs, Sheff says, explore the "fear of death and mortality, and what happens when people exercise their will over other people and what's wrong with that, and, in an immoral way, what's kind of exhilarating about that, and where people's urge for doing awful things comes from." A sort of singer-songwriter-sadist, Sheff pushes his chracters to the extreme edges, to "see what stuff they're made of, not just in terms of violence, but in terms of love." On Black Sheep Boy, Sheff explains, "we were trying to focus on the unsavory aspects of culture without making it topical at all, focusing on doing wrong, what happens when you deny the role that you're taking in something bad that's going on. I like the idea of trying to lay things bare a little bit, but not in a political sense."
Of course, America's songwriting tradition is filled with musicians trying to do the same thing, telling dastardly tales that are above all universal in their subject matter and timeless in their application. But Sheff doesn't need to hear more comparisons. "It would be annoying to anyone," he says. "It's like, one time I was hanging out with this friend of mine and his friend who looks a lot like Drew Barrymore, and I said, 'Hey, has anybody ever told you that you look like Drew Barrymore,' and she looked at me like, 'Fuck you.' It's a little bit like that." But he quickly disclaims, "We feel so lucky that people know the stuff and they like it and it's meaningful to them. I don't mean to sound...I sound so ungrateful, I'm sorry."
Okkervil River opens for Earlimart Thursday, May 19, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.