Listened to together, each record illuminates the other greatly, as songs reference each other, share images or continue stories. It's a particularly successful technique for the subject matter, which is essentially a lot of different ways of looking at being in a band on the brink of fame and the need to be self-aware in general but thankfully done in a way that's quirky enough, and rocks enough, to elevate it well beyond navel-gazing. The ecstatic power-pop hooks and fiery horns on the albums which bridge the indie-rock gap between Americana, garage and soul help hold your attention, too.
Even the cover art for the two records is linked and subtly thematic. Done in a style that evokes the cover of the Byrds' 1968 country-rock benchmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo (like a needlepoint sampler), the two Okkervil River albums turn out to be the top and bottom half of the same piece of art. On The Stage Names, a hand reaches out of the water into a glorious sunset. With The Stand Ins, the hand is revealed to belong to a skull-faced figure lying crumpled on a black background, clutching a bottle even as he reaches up. Okkervil River may have been looking at both sides for some time now.
It doesn't seem possible to watch oneself as an incipiently famous person (or part of a project on the ups) and not be deeply aware courtesy of the Wish You Were Here oeuvre of best-selling albums about the pain and pitfalls of fame that fame is probably going to bring pain and pitfalls. You'd have to be a bit dumb to miss that, and that's one thing the members of Okkervil River are not. Their music has always been smart thunderously emotional while complex, full of listen-twice lyrics that are literate and conscious without being self-aggrandizing.
The Stage Names doesn't disappoint. Sheff adds self-conscious irony and his trademark wry wit, with a keen perspective on the hallmarks of the band's particular type of indie-label stardom. He nails it most incisively on the track "Singer Songwriter," a kind of 21st-century intellectual hipster's "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," in which he skewers the girl who's the object of the song, and ruefully, himself, too.
The Okkervil show offers up a hat trick of rock 'n' roll with two formidable and eclectic opening acts sharing the bill. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, also from Austin, is quickly making a name for itself. Its quirky show pulls from the legacy of rock, funk and soul with Chuck Berry guitar licks, deep, real-deal horns with enough blast for the Apollo, and nasty, sinuous funk rhythms straight from early-'70s-era James Brown. The soulful weirdness of lead singer Black Joe Lewis rockets the overall effect up off of the terra firma of Dap-Kings-style retro soul and into a stratosphere of strange, with strangled vocals on tracks like "Bitch I Love You" that straddle the winking divide between being possessed with sincere soul sweat and taking it over the top into parody. Assuring that the band won't be pigeonholed, it recently played a few summer shows in Austin wearing Star Trek T-shirts, and debuted an instrumental homage to the show called "Enterprise."
Also on the roster is Crooked Fingers the 8-year-old solo project of Eric Bachmann, best known as the frontman for the jangly '90s Southern indie-rock group Archers of Loaf. With Crooked Fingers, Bachmann has left behind slacker-era snottiness for a kinder, gentler Americana, with heartfelt and delicate strings, horns and acoustic guitar. Besides recently recording a cover version of a song off The Stand Ins at Okkervil's request, Bachmann joined alt-country princess Neko Case at several concerts. Case appears on Crooked Fingers' forthcoming fourth album, Forfeit/Fortune (Red Pig), which comes out next week in a very indie way: The album will only be available for digital download, via the Crooked Fingers Web site, and at a handful of independent retailers around the country.