Black Sheep Boy

Okkervil River  

Black Sheep Boy

Released: April 5, 2005



On Okkervil River’s first Jagjaguwar release, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, the band included a song entitled “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas,” a kind of re-imagining of Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” slyly configured around the character’s personal experience of the song and exploding, in the final chorus, into an unabashed, exuberant cover. On the band’s newest release, they perform a trickier feat, as songwriter Will Sheff takes a lesser-known text–“Black Sheep Boy,” written by 60’s folk-pop master Tim Hardin–and spins that short song’s imagery into a phantasmagorical evocation of the title character, including a brief cover and a couple of sprawling, surreal sequels. Okkervil River’s 2003 album Down the River of Golden Dreams earned wide critical praise; Magnet called it the 8th best album of the year, comparing it to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and adding that “Okkervil River has that sort of mythical genius. Down the River…is a story of epic proportions–a battle with the enemies at hand that spirals into a confrontation of the demons within.” In the New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh noted that “Down the River of Golden Dreams…lays clever, heartbreaking lyrics over simple, stirring chord progressions…Mr. Sheff uses a rickety voice to disguise wild ambition,” while David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone that “Singer-songwriter Will Sheff of the haunted-country quartet Okkervil River is ready for worldwide renown. His ambitious melancholy on Down the River of Golden Dreams…would be impressive enough with just soft strum and Sheff’s vaporous tenor. But Okkervil River aspire to bigger cinema.”Black Sheep Boy is Okkervil River’s most ambitious and cinematic record yet, a love story and adult fable that evokes the mature songcraft of Leonard Cohen’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the sophistication of Scott Walker’s Scott 4, the shambling slow-motion bravado of Neil Young’s On the Beach, and the raw nerves and trick effects of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. It also occasionally echoes Lou Reed’s Transformer in that it is actually the band’s most playful and confident record by far, delighting in linguistic games, scrapping all caution and reserve, reveling equally in sheer pop, lacerating rock and roll, and straight-up country weepers. The most fully-realized and wildly adventurous Okkervil River record yet also introduces into the modern folk bellwether’s traditional palette of mandolin, pump organ, steel guitar, Wurlitzer, strings and horns such previously foreign elements as children’s keyboards, digitally-manipulated field recordings, and dirty splatters of distorted guitar. The longing might be keener, but the fun is funner this time around, too; somebody has spiked the drinks, and there are at least two bullets in the Russian roulette chamber. Most of the songs for Black Sheep Boy were written by Sheff after he’d moved out of his house to spend all of 2003 on the road, touring for Down the River of Golden Dreams and road-tripping around the country during off weeks. After rehearsing many of the new songs on the road during tours with Califone, John Vanderslice, Azure Ray, CocoRosie, and Clem Snide, the band retreated to an un-air-conditioned Austin, Texas tin roof shed to solidify the arrangements before going into the home studio of Brian Beattie (an ex-member of Austin legends Glass Eye as well as a producer for Daniel Johnston) who also recorded the band’s Jagjaguwar debut Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See. In pursuit of Black Sheep Boy, Beattie emptied his house, ran tangles of cables and carefully-placed microphones through the hallways, and captured most of it live in the wee hours of the night. The band then dragged what they’d captured into Beattie’s dark and tiny backyard shed and began performing delicate surgery on it, grafting on horns, introducing additional organs, and forcibly stimulating it by occasional jarring blasts of electricity. During the process, longtime Okkervil collaborator William Schaff (who has illustrated covers for albums by Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Songs: Ohia among many others) was brought in to make a few sketches of the creature for the public record. When the band felt like Black Sheep Boy had taken on a life of its own, they cleaned it up a little, civilized it up with a few string charts, roughly squeezed it into a double-breasted dinner jacket, and released it into the larger world. They’re proud to welcome this new addition to their family. It only wants to be your friend.

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