Okkervil River

Okkervil River formed in 1998, a band made up of singer and songwriter Will Sheff, drummer Seth Warren, and bassist Zachary Thomas. They gigged around Austin, TX for awhile and self-released a debut EP before finally attracting the attention of a small Indiana label called Jagjaguwar, who released their debut LP Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See and its follow up Down the River of Golden Dreams. Critics took note of Sheff's creative drive and his dense, novelistic lyrics; Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times that "Mr. Sheff uses a rickety voice to disguise wild ambition," and Rolling Stone's David Fricke added that "Singer-songwriter Will Sheff of the haunted-country quartet Okkervil River is ready for worldwide renown."

But worldwide renown eluded Okkervil River, and by 2004 they were running out of money and worn out by a relentless touring schedule. Drummer Seth Warren had moved to California, and bassist Thomas was transitioning out of the band to spend more time with his family. Sheff decided that if the next Okkervil River record didn't find an audience he'd quit playing music. He returned from the road and rented a shack out by the Austin Airport, and the new lineup of Okkervil River – now augmented by drummer Travis Nelsen and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper – would rehearse there by day and Sheff would sleep on the floor by night. The material they were working up was dark and sometimes disturbing, with a deep romantic undercurrent; it was inspired by a turbulent relationship Sheff was going through at the time, by the political climate of the mid-2000s, and by the life story of influential folksinger Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1980. Sheff decided he'd name the album after Hardin's tune "Black Sheep Boy."

On Black Sheep Boy, Sheff unpacked Hardin's two-minute recording into an expansive song cycle, woven through with themes of violence, abuse, oblivion, and longing, with periodic appearances by the title character, depicted on the iconic cover (by longtime Okkervil River illustrator William Schaff) as a grotesque horned creature with burning fire for eyes. Recorded in the dim, rickety garage studio of producer Brian Beattie, Black Sheep Boy overlaid raw electric rock, off-kilter pop, and sprawling balladry with a melodic and lyrical sensibility drawn from old American folk music. It blended acoustic textures like pump organ and mandolin with analog synths and manipulated electronic soundscapes mailed to Sheff by Seth Warren from his apartment in Berkeley, California. It sounded rough and handmade, raw and emotional, and unlike any record of its time.

Released by Jagjaguwar in early 2005, Black Sheep Boy is now regarded as Okkervil River’s breakthrough album. NY Times raved, “[Sheff] writes like a novelist. His songs are full of elegant phrases and unexpected images.” Pitchfork named it one of the “Greatest Albums Of The Decade” and The Guardian declared it “a work of riveting ambition.” Packed tours and festival dates followed, and the album’s first single “For Real” found its way into the ears of Sheff’s idol Lou Reed, who named Okkervil River one of his favorite contemporary bands, asked them to open for him and told Sheff, “You have a classic rock and roll voice.”

On a break from touring, Sheff and a now completely reformulated Okkervil River recorded Black Sheep Boy Appendix, an EP that combined re-tooled outtakes from the original sessions with new material to create a seamless whole piece, a new take on the Black Sheep Boy saga.

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of this iconic album, Jagjaguwar is proud to present the Black Sheep Boy Anniversary Edition, a three-LP set combining the classic Black Sheep Boy album and its counterpart the Black Sheep Boy Appendix with an all new unreleased album entitled There Swims a Swan: full-band recordings made six months prior to the release of Black Sheep Boy which illuminate the album’s roots in the traditional American songbook. Featuring beautiful, emotional readings of songs popularized by such artists as Washington Phillips, Lead Belly, the Louvin Brothers, and Roscoe Holcomb, There Swims a Swan takes the listener on a trip through the songs that inspired Sheff while composing Black Sheep Boy and reads like a run-through of that album’s themes. Black Sheep Boy is celebrated for its album artwork as well as its music, and the Anniversary Edition collects that artwork in a meticulously reworked package, combining every previous element of William Schaff’s imagery with a large new piece by Schaff depicting an updated Black Sheep Boy. The release also includes lengthy liner notes by Will Sheff walking the listener through the circumstances surrounding the album.

For Okkervil River fans (the most high-profile of whom was recently revealed to be President Barack Obama, who included “Down Down the Deep River” on his 2015 summer playlist), the Anniversary Edition is a loving, comprehensive, richly expanded presentation of a record many consider to be one of the band’s best. For those new to the band, this might be the best place to start, the first step on a long road, the opening to a forest you can get lost in.