Aug 292009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South

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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.

Aug 162007

"Wail like an infant atop a white baby grand"

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The wonderfully inimitable Ann had informed me that Bright Eyes is going to be playing my humble city of Spokane, WA on the 15th. If you’re in or around the area, it should be an awesome show. If even half the talent (e.g. Gillian Welch, Mike Mogis, Nate Wolcott, M. Ward, et al. ) that Conor Oberst collected with him on Cassadaga hits the road with him, then those live shows are going to kick prodigious amounts of ass.

Apr 162007

Bright Eyes, Cassadaga

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Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Cassadaga
Label: Saddle Creek Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.10
Score: 8/10

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.