OKKERVIL RIVER Sharp marksmen. Mary Sled
Okkervil River
w/Earlimart, Richard Swift
Wed May 18, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10.

"All they ask is where I've been/ Knowing I've been west." Though these aren't the words of Okkervil River singer and songwriter Will Sheff--the lyric is '60s folk-legend Tim Hardin's "Black Sheep Boy," also the name of Okkervil's newest release--they serve as a prophetic warning. The songs to come from this ghostly band are steeped in the intrinsic drive shared by those soulful ramblers who follow their hearts to a place dark and unexplored--somehow the only place that feels like home. And Sheff's home is a scary place.

Album opener "For Real" finds the Austin singer calling not only for the blood of she who forsook him, but his own ("Tonight I thirst for real blood/For real knives/For real cries"). This even while he's suggesting they spend a claustrophobic, ruinous night together, a night that will end not only in tears, but in the crimson flow of retribution. The tone of Black Sheep Boy, however, is not all woe, and like most Southern Gothic expositions, there's an accessible romanticism straining with undying hope for love and stasis. It's just that these extrapolations of longing are set upon wishes hanging on the fate of someone else, someone whose unavailability is heartbreakingly fabricated from an exploded past--most likely caused by the deeply regretful protagonist. This line, "Am I losing my cool/Overstating my case?/Well, baby, what can I say/You know I never claimed/ That I was a stone/And you love a stone," from "A Stone," is laden with horns that blanket the song's rueful indifference in a not-quite-convincing finish.

Sheff's empathetic nature to nurture rather than to destroy is especially evident in how the hearts' desires of his characters are themselves broken down, beaten by their own true loves. "Well, loving is as loving does/And I'd say we should know/Because we both have loved and lost and are alone" ("Songs of Our So Called…"). But as Sheff almost immediately likens himself to a finely (or is it finally?) sharpened dart that seeks the nearly realized chance to pierce this already aching heart, benevolence wins out and he leaves her to grieve alone. Which makes the la-la's of this patently country tune serve as indicators that the black sheep in question isn't really intent on causing any tangible harm.

Sheff has been compared to Scott Walker, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen, and rightfully so, although Bright Eyes' Connor Oberst most resembles Sheff's singing voice. But perhaps the most unexpected comparison is Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, which proves to be the most relevant given the Chilton-esque sarcasm and poetic sadness prettified by clever wordplay. The music offers listeners the occasional opportunity to languish in a fresh breeze of cool pop as the narrators remind themselves that for all its trying times and dark and lonely nights, being in love, or having been so and lost it, is a benediction that molds a resoundingly dignified soul and a life that cannot morally claim complete, utter emptiness.

Black Sheep Boy is Okkervil River's third full-length release since their 2000 debut, Stars Too Small to Use. That album showcased the Texas fourpiece's ability to blend folk and harmonies that manifest in a buoyant sound one doesn't expected from songs suggesting such deep and naked introspection. The surprisingly albeit perfectly titled Don't Fall in Love with Everything You See arrived in 2002, another beautiful example of a band that seems unable to not fall in love with everything it sees, but surely knows how to make a mess of it in the process and the aftermath. This time Okkervil River revealed a huge talent for combining the aforementioned folk sound with chamber pop, resulting in a lushness not dissimilar to that on Fruit Bat's recent Mouthfuls--a sound that becomes fully realized in the accomplished music of Black Sheep Boy.

Black-sheep types promise unpredictable, emotionally reckless returns. And if you're a fan of Young, Cohen, Iron and Wine's Sam Beam, or even the less insightful but equally compelling Bright Eyes, hold on to your heart and leave your vulnerability unguarded as you wait for Sheff and Okkervil River's inevitable homecoming.

editor@thestranger.com