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Okkervil River

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Okkervil River’s Sleep and Wake-Up Songs seems designed for being read as much as being listened to. Put on Track 1, “A Favor,” and it sounds as if two lovers are “wrapped in Star Wars sheets.” But consult the unindented blocks of prose printed in the CD booklet and the couple is actually “Rapt, in ‘Star Wars’ sheets,” engrossed not in C-3PO but in “wad[ing] through the watercolor.” Whether singer-songwriter Will Sheff means an actual painting, a particularly vivid state of mind, or something more metaphysical isn’t entirely clear—which seems appropriate enough: On the five songs of this not-quite-22-minute-long EP, the concrete world is often just a gateway to posing questions about, say, the nature of reality (“And I Have Seen the World of Dreams”) or the afterlife (“No Hidden Track”). “[F]or all of us and all of you/There are some things we can’t see into/Because from the other side no light shows through,” Sheff sings on “No Hidden Track.” “I hope that there’s a hidden track/It feels like there’s a hidden track.” In other words: It’s better not to know whether there’s a world beyond ours than to know for sure that there isn’t. As you might imagine, the Austin, Texas–based six-piece isn’t exactly rockin’ out here. The closest it comes is on the relatively joyous and bouncy final 45 seconds of the final track—and it still isn’t all that close. For most of Sleep and Wake-Up Songs, Okkervil River takes it nice ’n’ slow, letting guitar, piano, and trumpet lines mosey their way into a zone somewhere between the Paisley Underground and the vast alt-country desert. Sheff takes the evocative-inscrutability thing seriously enough to include the line—sung to a bird, no less—“[H]ave you heard that icicles hang from your feet?” but his songs do tend to reward subsequent listens. Yet if this disc is intended to break new ground for the third of Okkervil River—Sheff and piano man Jonathan Meiburg—that’s also half of the slightly better known, slightly more accomplished Shearwater, then the duo should keep on digging: Both bands’ bleak, resigned arrangements display allergies to sharp hooks, readily discernible bridges, and other pleasantries of pop craft. True, the old music fits the new lyrics quite well, but like “wrapped” and “rapt,” Okkervil River and Shearwater are different concepts that end up sounding pretty much the same.—Joe Dempsey