Austin, Texas-based Okkervil River garnered loads of acclaim for 2005's Black Sheep Boy, a collection of lonely, desperate rock songs anchored by frontman Will Sheff's thick, shaky warble. After releasing two companion EPs, Okkervil River finally produced a proper follow-up: The Stage Names is a slightly less unhinged, but no less compelling effort, bolstered by the same rich lyrics and poetically-straining guitar (think slightly-less-righteous Bright Eyes) they've employed since 1998.
The lovely “A Girl in Port” marries pedal steel and bits of piano while Sheff howls nervously about “her lacy clothes”; the no-less-winsome “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” is appropriately cinematic, all epic bursts and controlled retreats. But it's “John Allyn Smith Sails,” arguably one of the most bizarre pop experiments of the year, that soars: the song details, over light percussion and wisps of guitar, the suicide of beloved American poet John Berryman (the title refers to Berryman's birth name — his biological father, John Smith, killed himself with a shotgun when Berryman was twelve, and Berryman eventually adopted his stepfather's surname). Sheff nails down the specifics (“From a bridge on Washington Avenue/ The year of 1972/ Broke my bones and skull/ And it was memorable”) of Berryman's infamous bridge leap (he missed the water), before — wait for it — easing into a spirited rendition of the Beach Boys'version of “Sloop John B.” When Sheff yowls the chorus — “I feel so broke up/ I want to go home” — it's hard to know whether to snicker, gag or yelp along.