Aug 292009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South

Albums, Reviews Comments Off on Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South

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

Score: 9/10

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.

Mar 052009

Intro: Sorry for missing last week and being late this week.  Blame me if you must, but I blame a particular East-Coast customer (which shall remain nameless) which spent a couple weeks waking me up early and keeping me at the office late. . . . Also Guitar Hero III, to which I’ve recently become fiercly re-addicted.

Listening: So the new M. Ward album is crazy good.  Especially “Epistemology” and “Stars of Leo”, which have been on permanent repeat (from here forward to be termed “permapeat” because it amuses me) for the better part of a week.  It’s the same sort of understated, bluesy folk that I loved on Transfiguration of Vincent.  I would say that this latest album, Hold Time, plays up the religious things and takes a corresponding musical swing towards a vaguely gospel sound, which actually work quite well.  (For this, see especially “Epistemology”.)

Other than that, I’ve been listening to my Dropkick Murphys albums.  The show I went to Saturday kick-started my old love of the Murphys something fierce, and Sing Loud, Sing Proud! and The Meanest of Times have spent quite a bit of time in my CD player since then.  I will say, I think Sing Loud… is by far my favorite of their albums.  It’s consistent without being homogenous and it’s unrelentingly energetic and fun.

Upcoming: New Neko Case album out today, which I’ve just now purchased.  I’m pretty stoked about it.  I’m a huge fan of Neko Case, and I’m excited to see how Middle Cyclone lives up to the awesome precendent set by Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

Next week must be “Talent Deficiency Awareness Week”, as there are new releases from Kelly Clarkson, Chris Cornell, and New Found Glory.

Thinking: 1.) It occurs to me that the New Pornographers are probably the best modern example of a Reverse Supergroup.  They’re basically a musical pipebomb of awesome that’s given us solo work from Neko Case, AC Newman, and Dan Bejar.  Not to mention the various collaborations its members have been involved in.

2.) Oh man the Dropkick Murphys show was so good!  Those guys really know how to work a crowd.  They had amazing energy and charisma and were musically brilliant.  They played a good selection of newer and older material, with a few covers thrown in for good measure.  (Of special note was their awesome version of the Kingston Trio’s “MTA”.)

I will say, though, that the highlight of the show was Ken Casey singing “Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced” while trying to navigate a huge throng of adoring female fans that had been brought up on stage.  To his credit he did a great job with it despite (because of?) getting jumped several times during the tune.

The openers I was less impressed with.  The first opener, Civet, were a competent hardcore band, but technical difficulties, lack of stage presence, and fairly unimaginative tunes made their 40-minute set feel like it was about 20-minutes too long.

H2O had more going for them.  They owned the stage a lot more, were more energetic and actually had a sound that was distinguishably their own.

3.) The new Showbox venue is really nice.  Plenty of space, good acoustics, and a well-positioned stage.  The bar (to which I retired a few times to rehydrate) has a limited view and muffled accoustics due to a separating wall, but the main floor is awesome.

News: Comb your mullet and wax your Camaro, Faith No More are getting back together!  Win Butler of Arcade Fire and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips are having a bit of a pissing match.  I’d go on, but I think that last sentence just ODed me on ego for the week.

Song of the Week: Here’s the title track and debut single off Hold Time, by M. Ward:

Not my favorite track off the album, but still pretty damned awesome.  Also, kudos to Merge Records for allowing embedding on their official YouTube channel!