OKKERVIL RIVER with MINUS STORY at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (November 7), $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Give him your tired, your poor ; give him your lost children, your broken girls battered and beaten, your hapless drunks - Will Sheff wants to elevate all of them in song. Those walking wounded stumble through the grim fairy tales on Black Sheep Boy and Black Sheep Boy Appendix, a duo of discs from Austin singer/songwriter Sheff's Okkervil River group, both inspired by 60s folk casualty Tim Hardin's ode to a prodigal son of the same name.
The black sheep archetype haunts Sheff's songs literally and figuratively - he's the blue-eyed charmer who dazzles before slitting your throat or generates the sick fear that makes a girl bolt away from love. While the beautiful loser idea isn't a new one for songwriters, Sheff has a knack for capturing the darker corners of human experience without glorifying his characters or portraying them as martyrs.
"Fairy tales don't resonate with us because they're beautiful stories," he says. "We're drawn to them because people die, get thrown in a sack and tossed into the river or accidentally fall asleep and age 80 years without realizing it. They're like life. Unless you're an unbelievably sheltered person, you go through life accumulating scars, and I've always been attracted to the people who carry around that shit.
"The most troubled people don't get enough tributes written to them, and I felt almost a spiritual imperative to take that on," Sheff continues sheepishly. "But the tricky thing is that you can really only stand there and acknowledge your own impotence in the face of their hurt."
Contrary to speculation, Black Sheep Boy (the character and the album) isn't Sheff's exploration of his own psyche, nor is it an attempt to map out Hardin's tragic biography. Despite his insistence that he's writing from a perspective outside the material, people just don't get it.
"The Australian interviews are the worst," he groans. "They'll stare really intently at you and go, 'Who is the Black Sheep Boy?' or 'What is your greatest fear?' Do I look like I'm on a psychologist's leather couch?"
As a fuck-you in the face of such Barbara Waltersisms, Sheff (who moonlights as a writer for the Austin Chronicle) posted a meditation on Tim Hardin's life and music on the cool blog Said The Gramophone ( saidthegramophone.com), which you should check out if you're intrigued by Hardin or thoughtful critical writing.
So why do people confuse Sheff the writer with the protagonist in Black Sheep Boy's songs? Part of it is the incendiary passion of his vocals - Sheff spits lyrics with the ragged, unholy howl of a man trying to exorcise his own demons. Coupled with the pristine arrangements and nicely rough production of Okkervil's string-laced heartland rock, it makes both discs an intensely intimate listen.
And because he writes haunting songs that combine elements of magic realism with lyrical details that root the most fantastical tale in real time and real space, it's hard not to assume that, even when describing thirsting for blood and slitting throats, Sheff's recounting his own scary memories.
On Black Sheep Boy Appendix (out November 22 on Jagjaguwar), those tales become eerier, with images of stolen children, hot blood at slaughter and lost lambs. Recorded at the same time as the original LP, the Appendix accentuates Sheff's Lynchian tendencies with toy pianos, static and sonic suggestions of lost innocence.
Morbid bent aside, drummer Travis Nelsen says he's not worried about his bandmate going on a killing spree.
"Nah, I'm not freaked out. He's just a really good songwriter," he laughs. "The best thing is that he can take a dark story like Black and hide it in a catchy pop song. You'll be caught up in the melody and suddenly you listen to the lyrics and go 'Holy fuck!' It's terrifying but great. I don't think Will's gonna kill me in my sleep, though."