I’m a huge fan of a lot of the work that Conor Oberst has been doing in the past few years. And while I don’t always agree with the mans politics, I really admire what he’s trying to do with supporting immigration reform. I’m cynical about his chances for success, but I profoundly admire the effort.
Here’s his new single, “Coyote Song”. Whatever your feelings about the implied political message, I think it’s a damn fine tune:
So I have a whole mess of reviews that I’ve been meaning to get written. Sad as it is to say, I’m about 6 months and a dozen albums behind on releases that I want to either review or at the very least say something about. I’ll probably end up declaring album review bankruptcy at some point, but in the meantime, here’s the first of (hopefully) several reviews.
Album: Outer South
Artist: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
Label: Merge Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.5.5
In many ways, Outer South feels like the natural progression in a long process of maturation for singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. It marks the first album in which his bandmates make significant and visible contributions to lyrical style and content, with many of the songs written and/or sung by people other than Oberst. In many ways, this makes the album feel like a truly collaborative effort, whereas Oberst’s previous releases (many under the Bright Eyes moniker) were often presented as the stylistically monolithic creation of one man.
That being said, there’s little doubt that this album is, at its core, shaped and informed by Oberst’s previous body of work. Musically, the album develops the Alt-Country themes and feel that Oberst has been developing for the past few years (since, roughly, the release of Cassadaga). Songs like “Big Black Nothing” would feel right at home on any of these recent albums, with its jaunty, jangly guitar lines, effortlessly sliding chord changes, and twangy lyrical work by Nik Freitas.
Outer South is also an excellent demonstration of the fact that, while Oberst’s lyrical genius and compositional talent are in no way diluted or damaged by sharing the studio with strong musicians, he is definitely receptive to letting others take the reins and add their own contributions to the record. The Mystic Valley Band, after all, is full of talented musicians who have earned a great deal of respect and notoriety in their own right. Keyboardist Nate Walcott has played with Bright Eyes, Cursive, and Rilo Kiley. Nik Freitas is a talented multi-instrumentalist with several of his own albums under his belt. Jason Boesel has drummed with Rilo Kiley and The Elected. The rest of the personnel on the album all have similarly impressive musical resumes and all are incredibly talented.
One example of this is the bouncy, poppy love song “Air Mattress”, written and sung by Taylor Hollingsworth. While still vocally-centered like most of Oberst’s work, the sweet, energetic lyrics and Hollingsworth’s nasally, syncopated vocals are a clear departure from the classic Bright Eyes sound. The prominent, active synth lines, and poppy guitar riffs combined with the short, verse-and-chorus structure clearly mark it as departure for Conor Oberst and more the product of Hollingsworth’s writing than Oberst’s name on the record.
Other songs, like “Roosevelt Room” indicate that, while Oberst is sharing, it’s still his show. The song drips with socially conscious Alt-Country/Rock feel that Oberst has developed over the past few years. The complex and bluesy guitar lines, and the irregular lyrical structure would fit in perfectly on Cassadaga or Conor Oberst. Similarly, the referential, evocative lyrics are vintage Conor Oberst, displaying his excellent command not only of lyrical sound, but of sense and image as well.
As far as criticisms I have for the album, they’re few and far between. The sheer number of different voices and styles on the album makes it feel, at times, a bit disjointed. And while the songs are all brilliantly conceived, crafted, and executed, the shift in gears between, say, the light, straightfoward, pop-laden “Air Mattress” and the more somber and imagistic “Cabbage Town” can be a bit jarring.
Outer South feels, in many ways, like a grand experiment. What happens when one takes one of the strongest lyrical voices in modern music, who is known for being strongly in command of his projects and throw him in a studio with other brilliant writers, lyricists and musicians? Fortunately, the experiment turned out a damned fine album. A stylistic chimaera which displays a huge range of musical excellence. And while it is incohesive and erratic, every musical style it touches is invariably used for the creation of some truly awesome music.
Intro: Sorry it’s late again this week, folks. In future weeks, I’ll try to get these up on the Monday prior so that Wednesday meetings don’t futz with the schedule. I’m going to try and front-load the happier stuff before I get to the sad passing of Ronnie Drew. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Listening: Okay, so why have I been listening to Weezer’s “Heartsongs” all week? Can someone please tell me? Once you get past the musical in-jokes, it’s almost everything I dislike about Rivers Cuomo’s songwriting rolled into one package. It’s self-gratifying, the rhymes are forced, and the message is so heavy-handed that I’m pretty sure it’s leaving bruises. But that acoustic guitar hook, the vocal rhythms, and the snappy syncopation in the drums… It just gets under my skin. It’s the very definition of a love-hate song relationship.
Upcoming: As I mentioned last week, this next Tuesday is going to be old home week with new albums from Blues Traveler, BB King, Slipknot and a bunch of other venerable names. There’s also a Michael Jackson compilation entitled King of Pop coming out soon. I question the title, but it’s there if anyone wants it. Early September sees releases by Joan Baez, Okkervil River, Jessica Simpson, Joan Osbourne, and Gym Class Heroes.
If none of those artists ring your bell, you could always catch one of your favorite bands on tour. Fall is the prime time for tours, and many top acts are making the rounds. Conor Oberst is doing a world tour, but seems to be shafting us Yankees: what few shows he’s playing Stateside are mostly in the South. Wilco are doing shows around the country including one tonight (Thursday, 2008.8.21) here in Spokane. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to go. I can’t really justify spending any more funds for concerts this month (I’ll be making two trips to Seattle and back for shows by this time next month.) A super lame excuse, I know, but fear not: rumor has it that my good friends Ann and Paul will be going and while they don’t know it yet, I hope to harass one or both of them to writing something up about the show. I also hope to get them to kidnap Jeff Tweedy for me so that I can make him sing “Hummingbird” on command, but that might be aiming a bit high.
The inimitable Beck is also out on the loose this fall, and he’s playing the Bumbershoot festival on the 30th. Speaking of which: Bumbershoot. If you can make it, go. It’s an awesome festival and the lineup this year is tops. Again, I suck and won’t be able to make it (I’ll be working so that I can take part of that week off for my buddy Matt’s wedding), but despite my absence it’s still gonna be a great show.
News: So Ronnie Drew passed away this last week. He was easily one of the most powerful influences in music in the past 100 years. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Irish folk and Irish-influenced music is successful today because of Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners. But more than that, he was simply a brilliant musician and an amazing singer and songwriter. Requiescat in pace.
Here he is, singing “In the Rare Old Times”. Sorry for the random documentary-ish bit at the end, but this is the only version of this song I could find, and it’s too good not to share:
Thinking: There’s an interesting article in this month’s Under the Radar about political music. The article itself is actually kind of unimpressive, but it features pictures of various artists holding up signs with slogans painted on them. It’s amazing how much you can tell about an artist’s songwriting by seeing what they come up with when present with nothing but a blank piece of poster board and some grease paint. The sentiments range from simple cliches to stunningly succinct and evocative commentary. (They even pass by the [I think] unintentionally ironic with the very Caucasian Britt Daniel of Spoon holding up a sign which reads “Viva La Raza!”)
My personal favorite shot, however, is Michael Stipe calmly staring down the camera, holding a sign which reads “gutless Puff Adder Journalists”. Say what you will about Stipe, the man has a way with words. Close seconds are Wayne Coyne, hamming it up for the camera and showing off his “JUST BE A NICE PERSON wayne” sign and Fleet Foxes’ sign, which reads “CAPITALISM I$ UNETHICAL (AND WE’RE HYPOCRITES)”.
Compare those to the stale “END THIS WAR NOW” (Sharon Jones), “WAR IS OVERRATED” (St. Vincent), and “USE YOUR VOTE” (Elbow). (This is not to mention My Morning Jacket’s sign, which reads “Lack of Funding for the Arts/Art Education” and includes a drawing of a crocodile. Needless to say, even WITH the crocodile, it’s not even a complete sentence, much less a compelling political statement.)
Now, all these are fine and good sentiments and are important to express. But the point behind political music is not simply to state a platform or an ideal. If it were, we could put policy papers to a back beat and they’d be the best political songs ever. This points to one of the key things which separates great political tunes from boring, heavy-handed drivel. “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” was a brilliant protest song, because it ultimately was a catchy tune, with powerful ideas expressed in an intellectually and emotionally engaging fashion. In this same way, “Gutless Puff Adder Journalists” is effective political sloganeering because it’s not simply a statement of opinion. It definitely does that, but first and foremost it’s engaging.
At any rate, the article’s got me thinking about what it is that separates good political and protest music, from bad. Just why, for instance, Jarvis Cocker’s “Cunts Are Still Running the World” can be a seeming recipe for bad protest rock, and yet still turn out to be brilliant. A big part of it, certainly, is that message is not enough. It has to engage people on a level other than the political, in order for it to even work on the political level at all. That’s why “Cunts Are Still Running the World” works. It’s a clear statement, but the song itself also makes great use of Jarvis Cocker’s wonderfully snarky wit. This need for engagement beyond the politics is why, for example, “Ain’t No Rag” (Charlie Daniels) is eye-rollingly cliche crap and “Hoist That Rag” (Tom Waits) is an effective, thought-provoking political analogy.
That much, I think, is clear. But beyond that I’m at a bit of a loss for what separates great political satire and commentary from dreck. Though a lot of protest tunes are subtle, subtlety’s not enough, nor is it really even necessary. Being clever is undoubtedly good, but can be overdone. I’m almost inclined to say that it comes down primarily to lyrical novelty and resonance. If the way in which the message itself is phrased can either force the listener to think (novelty) and/or connect to some aspect of their experience (resonance) that that’s a huge first step.
I think this week’s Song of the Week is a good indication of that. It’s not subtle, nor particularly clever. Its use of reference to “Waltzing Matilda” is extremely effective, certainly. There’s something very poignant about the national anthem being played repeatedly throughout one man’s horrible experience in service to his country. But all in all, the song’s not particularly deep. And yet, I don’t think there’s a person alive who can be unaffected or unsympathetic when the narrator realizes that “to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs”.
This is definitely something I’ll have to keep thinking about. I’d be interested in your folks’ thoughts. What makes good political or protest music? Which tunes would land in your Top 5 political or protest songs and why? On the flipside: which are the worst and what makes them suck?
Song of the Week: To close out, here’s one more in memory of Ronnie Drew. This is “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” I first heard Drew’s version of it almost a decade ago and to this day it breaks my heart every time I listen to it. Tonight more than most:
Goodbye, Mr. Drew, and thank you.
Intro: Greetings all and welcome to the Olympics edition of the Tuesday Playlist. I say that, like it’s going to be all about the olympics, but really, they just get passing mention in one paragraph. Well, two paragraphs if you count this one.
Right, well, in this issue of the playlist, I talk about the new Conor Oberst album, admit to an irrational dislike for terminal punctuation in song titles, and poke fun at the music media in an oblivious and possibly ironic fashion. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Listening: It’s been interesting to hear the way music gets used in the Olympics. It’s been used to soundtrack several events (notably the floor gymnastics events), and while it’s been interesting to hear some of the songs chosen, it’s even more interesting to see how little the athletes seem to respond to it. One gets the impression that the floor routine, for instance, would look the same whether or not there was a peculiarly national folk song or cover of an American pop tune sound-tracking the proceedings.
On a more domestic note, I’m really digging the new Conor Oberst album. If Cassadega was Conor Oberst discovering Country music, then his new self-titled is Conor discovering Mexico. Spanish lyrics and references to Mexico and hispanic themes abound. And while the references are occasionally awkward or forced (“El cielo es azul”, no, really Conor?), they’re typically the sort of well-crafted lyrics that Oberst fans have come to expect. Particularly strong tracks include the classic Oberst purgative “Moab” and the rowdy, noisily fun “Souled Out!!!”.
And while the album is mostly Conor in top form, there are a few disappointments. One random short track of bellowing noise (“Valle Mistico (Ruben Song)”) seems to exist only to give the listener’s “Skip Track” button a workout. One track, “NYC-Gone,Gone”, is the first minute of a raucous, energetic Alt-Country tune which I, for one, would really like to hear. All things considered, however, despite the two short, frustrating tracks and a few moments of earnest Oberst pretention, the album is a solid 9.
Also in new(-ish) music, I recently grabbed The Soho Dolls’ Ribbed Music for the Numb Generation and Washington Social Club’s Catching Looks. Of the two, I’ve mostly been listening to Catching Looks. By which, of course, I mean that I’m in the habit of putting “Modern Trance” on repeat and dancing my arse off.
Upcoming: Brian Eno and David Byrne have apparently collaborated on an album that’s due out next Monday. With two fevered music imaginations like that, the odds are that whatever it is, it won’t be boring. It’s called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which says to me that David ByDrne won the naming rights for the album (knowing those two, likely by being the victor in a drug-fueled pillow fight.)
Also coming up next week is the physical release of the new Dandy Warhols album, Earth to the Dandy Warhols. I’ve only a few of the tracks off the album, but they’ve been all kinds of funky goodness. It turns out, however, that all the tracks on the album are available for streaming (scroll down a bit and you should see the track listing with a play button by each tune) from the Dandy Warhols website.
The next couple of weeks also promise releases by The Stills, Loudon Wainwright III, and, if you swing that way, Fiery Furnaces. Of special note is the 26th of this month which might as well be called Official Music Industry “They’re Still Alive?” Day with releases by Blues Traveler, Slipknot, The Verve, and BB King.
The King album actually should be pretty cool. It’s called One Kind Favor and it’s King doing covers of songs by his early influences.
News: I’ve had my head buried in the sand (read: work) for the past couple of weeks, so I’m a bit out of touch with industry news. Fortunately a quick glance at the front page of Music-News.com tells me that it’s been a slow news week. For those too lazy to click links: Paul McCartney goes camping! Bono the Pretentious snorts salt water! Victoria Beckham is rich and spoiled! Also, in music news, sound is carried by vibrations in the air!
Thinking: Random personal annoyance – I dislike song titles that include terminal punctuation. I got to thinking about this when listening to “Souled Out!!!”, one of the tracks off the new Conor Oberst album. First of all, as any good Middle School graduate should know, exclamation marks are “one or none” affairs. Secondly, putting terminal punctuation in your song titles just strikes me as somehow tacky. Not quite sure why, but it seems to say “your sentence ends with this song title!” It always looks awkward to me to put titles like “Fit, But You Know It.” in the middle of sentences. The period just screws the whole thing up.
Is anyone else bugged by this, or is it just me being finicky?
Song of the Week: Well, the song of the week WAS going to be Washington Social Club’s “Modern Trance”, which is catchy as hell and been stuck in my head for days, but I can’t find an easily shareable version of it on the intarwebs. It’s on Last.fm, but I can’t get it to play. So here’s “Souled Out!!!”, off of Conor Oberst’s new self-titled which, despite its redundant exclamation marks, is an awesomely groovy tune:
Intro: Okay, well, I’m a little late starting this one (11:53pm), but it’s still Tuesday, so I declare that this still counts as on-time. I’ve got a lot to get through, so I’m just gonna jump right in.
Listening: Well, my progress up through recent musical history’s brought me more or less up to the present. Been listening to some of my favorite 2007/2008 releases (Our Love To Admire FTW!) and even getting around to checking out some new albums and bands to which I’d been meaning to listen.
Speaking of which: why did no one tell me about the Rakes before? Their song “Binary Love” popped up a few times on one of my Pandora stations, so I added it with the hopes of hearing more of their stuff. Well, as so often happens, one thing lead to another and before I knew it, I’d bought Capture / Release and was using it to soundtrack my drive to Helena this last weekend. Honestly, the album isn’t quite as brilliant as I was hoping, but it’s still pretty strong. “Strasbourg”, “22 Grand Job”, and “Work, Work, Work (Pub, Club, Sleep)” are all fun. Also I’m enough of a geek that I’m pretty sure I want “Binary Love” played at my wedding.
I also grabbed The Last Shadow Puppets debut, The Age of the Understatement. It’s more introspective and complex than either Alex Turner or Miles Kane’s previous work. From the lush string parts on “My Mistakes Were Made For You” to the oddly cacophonous vocal counterpoints on “Separate and Ever Deadly” the album’s full of pleasant little aural surprises. I’m not sure what I think of it as a whole quite yet, but I do like it. If you like either complex, novel rock music or are a fan of either Arctic Monkeys or the Rascals, it’s well worth a listen.
I also just picked Conor Oberst’s new self-titled which just came out today. If you haven’t heard the single off it (“Danny Callahan”), it’s available for download here. If you’d prefer to just stream it:
Warning: it’s not exactly a happy tune. It is, however, beautiful and moving. Speaking of the album…
Upcoming: Wow, how did I not know that Oberst’s new release was due out today until I saw it on Amazon’s frontpage? I seriously need some new sources for upcoming release dates. Metacritic is accurate, but woefully incomplete. The Billboard lists are so noisy as to be practically unusable. News sites are, of course, hit or miss, since they all differ in what releases they deem mention-worthy. Where do you folks hear about new releases?
In concert news, Puddle of Mudd are playing Spokane tomorrow (2008.8.6) night, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also, I learn by way of a comment here at the blog that The Shondes are touring this Fall. They’ll be playing several shows over on the coast. (Alas, none here in the Inland Northwest, but that’s nothing new.) If anyone’s interested, I’m seriously considering heading over to catch the Seattle show. Finally, Alt-Country masters Wilco will be playing Spokane on the 21st of this month. They give a GREAT live show, and if I can scrape together the funds, then I’ll definitely be hitting it up.
News: Did you know that Lee Perry is a dirty old man? Neither did I, but his new single “Pum Pum” is pretty much a stoned, dirty old man’s ode to cruising for sex in nightclubs. Wait, why do I say “pretty much”? That’s EXACTLY what it is. It’s also crazy-groovy. The man has a masterful command of the Dub/Raggae side of things.
Also, those perpetually catty folks over at PopJustice are right: the new Streets single is pretty disappointing. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s “shite”, as they so eloquently put it, but it’s definitely no “Stay Positive”.
Thinking: So I’m a huge sucker for unique voices. Voices that, after a few listens, anyone could pick out of a audio lineup. Louise Wener, Tom Waites, Robert Smith. I love artists whose voice is entirely their own. It’s a little like hearing an instrument that no one else in the world can play. Paired with a good writing talent (either their own or a partner’s) and the possesors of such voices can turn out some truly brilliant music. (Louise Wener is a great example of that: a fantastic songwriter with the unique voice necessary to really make her songs her own.)
What I think is really interesting is how often these voices wind up either spawning genres or, at least, defying being placed into them. I think that part of the reason that Alt-Country became a big thing is that Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy have such unique voices and musical visions to accompany them. Similarly, I think that the current wave of singer-songwriters is thanks in large part to the unique voices of people like Conor Oberst and Ben Gibbard.
I think that the vocal qualities are one of the key things that shapes a new musical movement or genre. It’s why so many singers in the late 90s sounded like bad Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder impersonators. In a way, their voices were distillations of what the genre was meant to sound like.
Just a thought that’s been rattling around in my brain of late.
Song of the Week: I’ve been going back to this tune over and over again ever since I got the album. This is “Orphans”, by Beck, off of Modern Guilt:
Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes fame) playing “Lua” (off of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning)at Coachella, 2005. I am thoroughly charmed by this video, despite the poorly-timed cut to some footage of an interview with Oberst.
Artist: Bright Eyes
Label: Saddle Creek Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.10
Cassadaga is a fairly significant turn for Bright Eyes in several ways. It marks a distinctive shift in the group’s sound (comparable in scope to that heard on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) towards the Country / Western / Alt Country area of the musical spectra. And for lyricist / songwriter Conor Oberst, it displays a level of political and social awareness not present in previous efforts. And like all new paths, this one starts out with some noticeable rough spots. The political commentary is occasionally shallow or reductionist, the country twang is occasionally done up a little too much, the intense self-reflection and self-reference (hallmarks of most of Bright Eyes’ work) occasionally takes a turn for the decidedly pretentious.
The net result, however, is a moving, often charming, and intensely personal look at the world. The tone of the album is at turns introspective, narrative, and observational, giving a sense (present in a great deal of the rest of Bright Eyes’ corpus) that the band really is a mouthpiece for Oberst’s view of the world. And while how autobiographical the album is remains an open question, it certainly has a biographical feel to it. This intensely personal tone (as well as several of the lyrical and musical themes of the album) is set early with the single, “Four Winds.” This rocking, alt-country track serves as a far more fitting opening to the album than the plodding, introspective, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” “Four Winds” manages to neatly wrap most of the important facets of the album in one track, which makes it the ideal single. Religious and social commentary (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Koran is mute”) mix with personal reflection and a recurring theme of wandering and a search for truth. And with a intensely rhythmic, heavily country-influenced sound, the song also gives the listener a musical sense of what to expect in the rest of the album.
And what the listener has to look forward to is largely positive and quite varied for the extent to which it fits into the orchestral Country feel to which the band commits. This is hardly a surprise given the diverse cast of talented musicians Oberst has managed to collect. Notables include M. Ward, Gillian Welsh (along with long-time associate, guitarist David Rawlings), Ben Kweller, Jason Boesel (of Rilo Kiley fame), and Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater Kinney). The result of this collaboration is a rich musical complexity that not only makes for a pleasant, interesting listening experience, but means that Cassadaga rewards repeat listening with the kind of depth that always turns up new musical tidbits.
One track which epitomizes this musical depth is the deceptively simple-sounding “Classic Cars.” At first, this introspective character sketch sounds to be a fairly typical and unnoteworthy alt-country combination of vocal-driven melodies supported by guitar-heavy harmonies. But beyond Jason Boesel’s varied, interesting, and almost-unpatterned drumming and the excellent guitar lines laid down by Mike Mogis and David Rawlings, there’s some excellent piano work (courtesy of Nate Walcott) and Gillian Welsh’s smooth, unwavering alto singing backup. The net effect is a rich, interesting track that begs to be put on repeat.
But the boons brought by this impressive musical cast aren’t limited to one or two tracks, but rather heard all over the album. The dark, orchestrally percussive “Middleman” features catchy, bluegrass-inspired guitar hooks and some incredibly groovy work by a sizeable percussion section. “No One Would Riot for Less” builds slowly from a simple accoustic guitar melody (which would sound right at home on any of Bright Eyes’ early albums) to a cathartic major turn accompanied by orchestral harmonies, organ, and lap steel guitar. The wonderfully-named “Soul Singer in the Session Band” features superb vocal and guitar work from bluesman M. Ward in support of Oberst’s lyrical, moaning voice.
Lyrically speaking, this album is paradoxically both one of the most self-referential and yet most socially aware Bright Eyes album to date. While most of the songs are couched in an autobiographical mood, Oberst finds time to take jabs at the political and social structures. And while I’m always skeptical of such commentary in music (it’s easy to do, but incredibly hard to do well), Oberst does manage it without too much melodrama or pretension. Admittedly, there are some cringe-worthy lines, but I can forgive a contrived reference to “democracy’s shackled hands” in light of the more subtle (“Get your revolution at a lower price”) and better developed (the social and religious jabs in “Four Winds”).
When one comes right down to it, the album is kind of a “one for the fans” affair. For all its new Country trappings, Bright Eyes is much the same as it’s always been: a group of talented musicians serving largely as a mouthpiece for frontman Conor Oberst. There are a lot of musical bits of stylistic nostalgia harkening back to previous albums (“Coat Check Dream Song” is syncopated and synth-y enough that it could easily have been a Digital Ash in a Digital Urn b-side) and many of Oberst’s favorite lyrical memes crop up throughout. As a result, if you like Bright Eyes, you’re probably going to dig Cassadaga. If, on the other hand, Conor Oberst and his troupe rub you the wrong way, then the occasional pretension and consistent self-reference will probably get old pretty quickly. That being said, this album is far more interesting from a strictly musical point of view than previous Bright Eyes releases. The scoring and song-writing is more complex and the resulting sound is rich and engaging, with the kind of depth that is likely to keep listeners coming back for more.
Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Four Winds EP
Label: Saddle Creek
For some reason, whenever I hear that Conor Oberst is releasing another Bright Eyes album, I’m always vaguely worried. Part of me is always worried that I’ll pick it up only to hear that Mr. Oberst has finally gone one album too far and catapulted himself off into the kind of melodramatic musical pretension that his music always seems to threaten, but (thankfully) usually manages to avoid. So it was when I heard that his new album Cassadaga would be coming out in April.
I was quite pleased, then, when I first heard the album single, the lyrical, country-tinged “Four Winds” and saw the top-talent line up for the album. I was also extremely pleased to see that they were releasing an EP to accompany the single. So, I dug a few virtual dollars out of my virtual wallet and ordered the Four Winds EP off Amazon, and ever since it’s arrived it’s been in fairly heavy rotation.
The EP has a little something for every kind of Bright Eyes fan. Were you a Lifted… fan? There’s the dark, rambling “Cartoon Blues”. More of a I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning kid? Try the Conor Oberst/M. Ward duet “Smoke Without Fire”. Did you did the more modern sound of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn? Check out “Reinvent the Wheel”. Whatever it is you’ve liked about Conor Oberst and his variety of musical friends, there’s at least one track on the EP that will give you your particular Bright Eyes fix.
What’s more, though, you’ll also get something a little new. “Tourist Trap”, for example, has the fuzzy, plodding, Folk-Blues sound one usually attributes more to M. Ward or Sam Beam. More telling, however, is the focus of the single EP: “Four Winds”.
[soapbox]I will say, “Four Winds” is one of those songs that is going to inspire a lot of irritation for me. Not because of the song itself, but because of how a lot of people are going to want to read into it. It has the epic sound and heavily referential style that always seems to bring out the pop exegete in listeners. And while there are many people whose opinions on the song I’m actually quite eager to hear, there’s going to be a lot more interpretations of it that are going to make me want to bash the speaker in the head with the nearest blunt object. In support for this theory: a link to the SongMeanings.com entry for the song. Of course, SongMeanings.com fosters this kind of lame-brained hyper-intepretive effect all its own, but with a song as rich and referential as this, some people definitely go nuts with it. I particularly like the “This song is calling for an end to civilization, YEAH REVOLUTION” meme that one of the commenters reads into it.[/soapbox]
The song is, though, kind of Eliot-esque in the way it uses references. That is to say, it’s not simply the seamless integration of allusions in the music, but rather the use of such allusions in a creative and productive way. The few references to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” are particular nice, with such unique appropriations as “hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds”. Similarly the biblical references, especially to the book of Revelations, the religious community of Cassadaga, and others. Of course the sheer concentration of allusion doesn’t reach Eliot strength, but it’s at least a few hundred milli-Eliots.
What makes song notably new, however, is not simply its allusion-heavy lyrical style, but its heavy country influence, its explicitly religious overtones, and a sense of social commentary which Oberst has, historically, avoided (at least until his two 2005 releases, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in which socio-political commentary was a more evident theme.)
It’s always a toss-up whether or not a single will be qualitatively or stylistically representative of album from which it’s drawn, but in the case of “Four Winds”, I would certainly be happy to hear an album full of the kind of quality musicianship and songwriting evident on “Four Winds” and on the EP as a whole. And while it would be quite easy to overdo the swaying, plaintive Country sound and thick allusions heard in “Four Winds”, there seems to be no indication of that happening, if single really is an example of what we should expect from Cassadaga when it drops on April 10th (meaning, incidently, that you’ll have a chance to vote for a review it next week, if you’re so inclined).
I’d totally missed the fact that the new Bright Eyes single was released a couple of weeks ago. It’s gratifying to see that it’s a real, proper single, with a healthy chunk of B-Side material to make buying it a good idea. In addition to “Four Winds,” the single off of the forth-coming Cassadaga album, it’s got 5 other tracks not found on the album, making it more of a single EP than a conventional American single.
This is something I’ve complained about elsewhere and to many people, but most American record labels and/or bands either don’t know how to craft a good single or simply refuse to do so. I’ll pay 8 bucks for the radio single plus a few other songs that won’t be on the album. I won’t, however, pay that much for the radio single and two shitty remixes thereof.
So props to Conor Oberst and his Saddle Creek Records label for putting out a single record worth buying.
Info here on Cassadaga and the Four Winds single, as well as a few .mp3 dowloads. I highly recommend “Four Winds” and the brilliantly-named “No One Would Riot for Less.”
In other news: The lineup credited on the new album is impressively all-star. Ben Kweller, M. Ward, Janet Weiss, and Jason Boesel, amongst others.