REVIEW: Okkervil River: Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See
Okkervil River: Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See [Jagjaguwar, 2002]
Three words? Fiery river dance.
The brown waters of Okkervil River slide lazily through the fields and dales of the south, past sun-faded grasses and over rocky, cool hills. Lost things drift in the water - cloth dolls bounce and bob; daisy-petals, eggshell, bloody gloves pulse in and out of view. As these artifacts flow past, there is a sadness, a melancholy, but also an anger - memories of passion and violence. Beneath the pastoral veneer, Okkervil River carries an honest, visceral bitterness - a bite.
Don't Fall in Love... is a tour-de-force of Gothic indie-folk, an album that combines the tropes of back-porch bluegrass, scraggly-voiced indie rock, and joyous, roaring punk. It moves from lost-love dirges to slain-girl ballads and celebratory sing-alongs, and each is blessed with mandolin, acoustic guitar, and smeared vocal harmonies. There are trumpets and shuffling drums and words that pull twinges from the chests of the listeners. It's in equal parts dark and light, past-dwelling and life-affirming. It's, um, very good.
"Red is my favourite colour," someone sings as the CD opens, "Red like your mother's eyes after a while of crying..." Three vocalists take turns on different tracks, and each sings with a voice that falls at different points along the Will Oldham-to-Conor Oberst spectrum. Wurlitzer and mellotron add a layer of kindness to the lyrics of inevitability and loss; harmonica, spoons and pedal steel add country twang. Everywhere is imagery of drowning, of death - but also of the accompanying electricity - the black energies that power Mardi Gras and the greenwitch. As band-member Will Robinson writes, it's a "joy ... so joyful I thought I would burst and pain ... so painful I thought I would drown". Beside the ache of "Kansas City" is the feverish, trumpet-laced dance of "Lady Liberty" - the ska band camped out in a New Hampshire barn. "My Bad Days" creeps like the slowest of Palace Brothers' numbers, led by a cracked, broken voice. Then there's "West Fall" - the tale of a boy, a killer, of his days "younger, handsomer and stronger", of Laurie, and of that night in the woods. For all the subject-matter, it is not a black song - it is bright, if uneasy. As the narrator's tale reaches its climax, as he gets down "on both knees", guitars dive out of the walls, drums step it up, and it's a raging, rousing "la la la" glorytale: veins pump blood, hair flies back, crows crisscross the skies. "Evil don't look like anything!"
And there's more; there's the sentimental, honky-tonk-meets-Promise Ring "Happy Hearts", the hoe-down "Dead Dog Song", the quiet, New Acoustic "Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas". And finally, gloriously, there is the tum-tum-drummed, melody-from-the-gods "Okkervil River Song", which tells of the water that stares back, the night that falls "from tangles", the altar and the nightly fires. The mandolin which dances in the right speaker is a vibrant, potent spirit - a devils' tune that looks back and laughs, that washes its sadness away with tears. "Okkervil River Song" builds the barn and burns it down; it waltzes in the ashes, kicks up its heels, and then reminisces. It lives, loses and laughs. Its halo is seen from miles. It moves.