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.