Okkervil River 

The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar)

Forget Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens — Okkervil River's Will Sheff is a much stronger songwriter. With 2005's critically lauded Black Sheep Boy and its subsequent appendix EP, Sheff and company broke into music-geek consciousness and set the, uh, stage for their latest full-length, The Stage Names. The album doesn't waste any time getting started: Opener "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe" is one of the best tracks Sheff has penned to date. The song alternates between minimalist guitars and expansive arrangements featuring singing pianos, crashing cymbals and percussive effects that drop like bombs. The rest of The Stage Names is equally brilliant, but in a more subtle way — one that requires multiple listens to digest. For every gorgeous midtempo track, there's an acoustic ballad like "A Girl in Port," which is captivating even as it slows the overall momentum. The disc's biggest success just might be the final track, "John Allyn Smith Sails." Sheff sings about lying in bed reading a piece of poetry written in 1931 — and somehow doesn't sound precious or pretentious. This type of vulnerability permeates The Stage Names, making it a transcendent slab of sound.

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