The decision of Austin's Okkervil River to name its latest album after a tune by folk songwriter Tim Hardin seems odd at first. The group's cover version, which opens the album, lasts barely longer than a minute, and its quiet restraint is a stark contrast to the raucous energy of the rest of the album. In fact, the song's brevity and subtlety would make it easy to ignore, except that character of the Black Sheep Boy resurfaces throughout the rest of the album (and in a follow-up EP, "Black Sheep Boy Appendix," due out this month).
Okkervil River pulls off the choice to develop an album around a character created by another artist with surprising grace. The guitars that are unleashed in a bursting fury on "For Real" meld seamlessly into the delicate "In a Radio Song," in which main songwriter Will Sheff's plaintive voice conveys the isolation of an outcast. Sheff's vocals expand from a murmur to a bray and back, but the group's tight arrangements and instrumentation are its real forte. A subtle trumpet line cements the waltz "A King and a Queen," while a string melody and Wurlitzer shimmer behind album-closer "A Glow."
Unlike "Black Sheep Boy's" carefully orchestrated exuberance, the intensity of "The Man in a Blue Turban With a Face" by Philadelphia's Man Man is manifested as exploding chaos. "White Rice, Brown Heart" erupts with yelps, whoops and chants, while barks and marimbas pop up on "Zebra." The plinking keyboards and mellow sax on "10 lb. Moustache" show glimmers of control, but for the most part, "Blue Turban" spins toward the brink of barely contained mayhem.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 11 November 2005, Page WE06