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.

Apr 012007

Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Four Winds EP
Label: Saddle Creek
Score: 9/10

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).

So I think it’s pretty safe to say that my pre-Bright-Eyes-release worries have been well-assuaged by a proper single EP chock full of a variety of a variety of kinds of Bright Eyes goodness.

Mar 262007

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.