OKKERVIL RIVER

The Stage Names

(Jagjaguwar)

recommendedrecommendedrecommended1/2

After five full-lengths and some nine years of steady plugging along, who would've thought a little success would go to Will Sheff's head? And yet, following the success that Sheff's Okkervil River has enjoyed since the release of their New York Times–lauded, Lou Reed–approved Black Sheep Boy, Sheff has mustered the confidence to indulge virtually every fat-headed cliché of the newly successful rock musician, as evidenced in every corner of his band's latest, The Stage Names.

Firstly, as the title suggests, the premise of most of The Stage Names lingers around tales of contemporary performers, and as such, there's a healthy dose of the unfortunate "rock band writing about being in a rock band" predicament—a classic lyrical stalemate that very few musicians seem to be able to enliven with any degree of success. Secondly, Sheff indulges his new-found lyrical renown by cramming almost every inch of The Stage Names with verbiage so dense that he struggles to spit it all out—an effect that occasionally undermines the suspension of disbelief necessary to invest in the sincerity of his message.

Additionally, he trades a bit of his beloved weepy sentimentalism for a touch of the clevers—shown in, among other things, his light sprinkling of familiar musical and lyrical references throughout. (An aside: If by chance this sounds a little bit like the Hold Steady's similarly lauded Boys and Girls in America, it seems it's not entirely by imagination—the two records even awkwardly share songs about poet John Allyn Berryman.)

With all that's stacked up against it then, it's particularly impressive that Sheff and Co. succeed on nearly all counts. And while not the unqualified success that was Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names is at the very least a very worthy successor. ZAC PENNINGTON

MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO.

Sojourner

(Secretly Canadian)

recommendedrecommendedrecommended

Jason Molina has always been prolific, but Sojourner, the new Magnolia Electric Co. release on Secretly Canadian, is nothing short of epic: The deluxe box set contains three LPs, one EP, a medallion (really), and a DVD documenting the band's tour through the great expanses of the Canadian prairie.

Molina recorded this material in separate sessions with 15 different musicians just after What Comes After the Blues, the first Magnolia Electric Co. album, was released in 2005. What's interesting is that despite the use of different producers (Steve Albini for Nashville Moon, Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery for The Black Ram) and different locations (Sun Studio for Sun Session, a lonely room for the spectral Shohola), the music on the four discs doesn't sound all that different. Molina's rough-hewn voice, full of love and trouble, grounds each of his literate, earnest compositions. It's the voice of a man you feel you could never really come to know; the depths are too deep, the history too sodden with despair, isolation, and failure.

Sojourner can be seen as a collection of outtakes, but that's not to say it's not full of strong material. Some versions of previously recorded songs (the wistful, desperate "Hold on Magnolia," the driving "Hammer Down") shimmer in their new incarnations. Other tracks we haven't heard before, but they're just what you'd expect from Molina and Co.—heartfelt, vulnerable, passionate, lost. There's a heartbreaking version of the old blues standard "Trouble in Mind" on the Sun Session EP. The spare Shohola contains one of the highlights of the whole set in the haunting "Shiloh Temple Bell." The glorious excess that is Sojourner lays out a satisfying buffet of Molina's obsessions, all the way from devastating loneliness to brief, but shining, triumph. CHRIS McCANN

THE LONELY FOREST

Nuclear Winter

(Self-released)

recommendedrecommended1/2

The Lonely Forest's debut album overflows with youthful passion. The sounds on Nuclear Winter are lush and epic. For such a huge sound you'd expect a symphony, but it's really made by just three young men (two of who aren't yet of legal drinking age). The piano is explosive—loud and nimble, and the driving force of each song. The bass is fluid and strong; the drumming is sharp and precise.

But it isn't the Anacortes trio's monstrous orchestration that makes Nuclear Winter notable—it's the story. Nuclear Winter is a lofty concept album—"A space rock odyssey into an alternate dimension!"—about a young man living in a tragic future. It's 2563, and earth is so technologically advanced and overpopulated that the world is doomed to end by rapid global warming and/or the nuclear holocaust.

Through songs/chapters about space travel, war, fearlessness, and hiding out in a room while listening to Pedro the Lion's Dave Bazan, our protagonist experiences a gauntlet of emotions while watching the world collapse upon itself.

From the pretty minute-and-a-half prelude to the droning, almost 20-minute-long end jam that accompanies the world's demise, there's no lack of drama. From the seclusion of Anacortes, the Lonely Forest have created a new world of their own, an alternate dimension sprouted from the imaginations of boys with a lot of space, time, and probably pot at their fingertips. MEGAN SELING

The Lonely Forest play their CD-release show Sat Aug 4 at the Vera Project, with the Robot Ate Me and For Years Blue.

JENNIFER GENTLE

The Midnight Room

(Sub Pop)

recommendedrecommended

Don't let the name fool you. Jennifer Gentle isn't some fey female singer-songwriter, but rather five men from Padova, Italy. And they're not particularly gentle. The name comes from a Syd Barrett lyric, and this band is every bit as strange and psychedelic yet poppy as their sort-of namesake.

For The Midnight Room, the band's founder and sole songwriter, Marco Fasolo, holed up in his home studio—a house known for its former occupant's suicide—and wrote, played, and recorded the album in total isolation. The result isn't so much intimate as it is stir-crazy.

"Twin Ghosts" is a soft, wispy introduction, but it's a feint. The album really hits its lurch with the strychnine-laced haunt of "Telephone Ringing." The track's demented bounce, tiptoeing guitars, and evil, elfin vocals recur throughout The Midnight Room, suggesting not just isolation, but also insomnia and fever dreams. That instrumental bounce is nowhere more apparent than on "Take My Hand," whose romantic plea, "Take my hand early in the morning," sounds like it comes not after a night of love so much as a night of fraying hallucinations. Elsewhere, that sickly carnival swagger gives way to moments of serenity, as on "The Ferryman" and the stargazing coda "Come Closer." But for the most part, The Midnight Room is an unsettling place. ERIC GRANDY

Jennifer Gentle play a free show Fri Aug 3 at the Crocodile, with Blitzen Trapper and Hypatia Lake.

Nutria recommendedrecommendedrecommendedrecommended

Leech recommendedrecommendedrecommended

Shark recommendedrecommended

Candirú recommended