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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Okkervil River is the name of an indie rock band based in Austin, Texas. They say their name comes from a story by a descendent of Leo Tolstoy, and it's a real river outside St. Petersburg. But rather than drawing on the gloomy traditions of great Russian novels, the band explores the primal violence sometimes heard in folk tunes and blues. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY: Will Sheff grew up on the grounds of a New England private school. He comes from a long line of teachers who imparted a passion for stories and words. Sheff started Okkervil River after dropping out of a creative writing program but not before learning to ask certain questions about the characters inhabiting his songs.

WILL SHEFF: I'd start thinking, you know, `Who were their parents? Where are they from? What's at stake? What do they want? What are they afraid of? What's happening in this particular moment of this song? What's going to happen after this song's over?'

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

OKKERVIL RIVER: (Singing) Black, black sheep boy, blue-eyed charmer. Head hanging with horns from your father. Oh...

ULABY: The character driving Okkervil River's latest work is the "Black Sheep Boy," an enigmatic figure made popular in a 1967 song by Tim Hardin, an acclaimed singer and a heroin addict who died at age 39.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

TIM HARDIN: (Singing) I'm the family's unknown boy, golden curls of envy. Pretty girls and faces pass see the shining black sheep boy.

ULABY: With this single tune, Okkervil River's Will Sheff extrapolated a dark, loosely-knit song cycle; spanning not one, but two albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RIVER: (Singing) If you love me, you'll let me live in peace. Please understand that the black sheep can wear the golden fleece and hold a winning hand.

SHEFF: I kept thinking about this song, and suddenly I just wrote this sequel to it, which is "So Come Back, I'm Waiting," which is, like, a nine-minute-long sequel to a, you know, one-minute-and-45-second-long song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RIVER: (Singing) So come back to your life on the ranch. So come back to your own black sheep man.

ULABY: Sheff initially envisioned the adventures of "Black Sheep Boy" as those of a misunderstood prodigal son and the tortured souls he meets in his wanderings.

SHEFF: They just kept coming. I couldn't stop. And then I started getting really excited about forgetting about the idea of the "Black Sheep Boy" as this, like, somebody who does wrong and knows they're doing wrong but doesn't care. And then I was like, `What is the "Black Sheep Boy" is just a monster, just like a half-sheep, half-human, like, monster? You know, maybe I can just make a storybook kind of thing out of this like a Grimm Brothers fairy tales, you know, where you can really get dismembered and you can really lose your loved one forever and there's a monster outside the door.'

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RIVER: (Singing) Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries, and then the flash of steel from real guns, in real life really fills my mind. I really miss what really did exist and how your throat's so tight.

ULABY: While Will Sheff seems to draw from the same sonic palate as Nirvana, he freely credits an endless stream of murder ballads and story songs that fill up book music, songs that plumb the dark side of the American character. Music critic Alison Stewart says Okkervil River's complex storytelling rewards bookish listeners.

ALISON STEWART: You can hear a song 20 different times and still find little clues and little things that you missed in it. That's what people like about them. It's like deciphering a puzzle when you listen to their lyrics.

ULABY: The puzzle of Okkervil River's music is built partly on a tradition of repurposing, or sampling, that's been part of music probably since the beginning of time. Just think of "John Henry," a song interpreted by innumerable musicians.

SHEFF: And it's not like they went to grad school to come up with that idea, you know. It comes very naturally to people. And I think in this age where we think really strongly in terms of ownership of ideas, you know, which is good, one of the casualties of that is that we forget that ideas belong to everybody and the culture belongs to everybody, and we're all free to modify it, subvert it and pervert it and rework it.

ULABY: Will Sheff is making a pointed reference to the number-one issue concerning his industry today, copyright and who owns music. Sheff describes himself as a political musician, that he works in allegory not polemics. Jonathan Meiburg holds a PhD in ornithology, the study of birds. He also plays accordion and keyboards for Okkervil River.

JONATHAN MEIBERG: We have at least one song that I think of as very satisfyingly political, and it's called "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks." And it's not a message song.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE WAR CRIMINAL RISES AND SPEAKS")

RIVER: (Singing) Now he's rising at night tonight. His hands are shaking, but he's not crying. And he's saying, `I just clawed out of a life so boring. And to that moment, please stop ignoring the heart inside...'

ULABY: The song's story concerns an officer who killed a village of children apparently in Vietnam. But Meiberg says such threats lurk in any war.

MEIBERG: I think it feels relevant at any time, but it sums up a situation that occurs over and over and over again.

SHEFF: I mean, we live in grotesque times.

ULABY: Singer and songwriter Will Sheff.

SHEFF: We live in disgusting, frightening times, ugly, ugly times. And I guess I thought maybe I could try to make a work that was ugly, grotesque and frightening but had, like, a sort of sense of excitement and a sense of heart and was not negative; that had a sort of passion and play and joy to it somehow.

ULABY: That might help Sheff reach a broader audience, says music critic Alison Stewart, and maybe the band is trying. She finds it significant that Okkervil River concluded the "Black Sheep Boy" song cycle with an upbeat track.

STEWART: It's just a really sort of jubilant song, and I think it's very interesting that he chose to end the album with a song like this. I think it may be his way of trying to say that they're going to go in a new direction in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RIVER: (Singing) Take my sword from the slaughter. Melt it down into vapor, and my armor, too.

ULABY: Okkervil River has earned generally glowing reviews from critics, who nonetheless habitually compare Will Sheff's voice to that of Connor Oberst of the band Bright Eyes, which Sheff, to an extent, disputes.

SHEFF: We both sing in the same range, we both have a really hard time staying in tune, we both have really crumby voices, and that's the similarity.

ULABY: Sheff says a bigger problem is the hard-to-remember name of his band, which he found in a story by Tatana Tolstaya. She's a great-grandniece of the author of "War and Peace." Sheff says Okkervil River's fans appreciate obscure references and wordplay, and he's tickled when they mock his baroque tendencies.

SHEFF: The funniest is when people call it Overkill River. And we were thinking about--we were, like, `We should just change the name of this band to Dirge Overkill.'

ULABY: Okkervil River's message board has turned into an unexpected forum for world literature fans. A recent post about the Tolstaya short story generated a slew of enthusiastic responses and recommendations for other writers, including Knut Hamsun and Haruki Murakami. Go figure. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSEN: There's much more music from emerging artists--and many old favorites, too--on "All Songs Considered," the Web-based music show at our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )

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