Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bright Eyes at their Brightest (CD Review) by Alison Ross

So apparently Conor Oberst of the band Bright Eyes got the memo that he should eschew the faux-folk crap and return to to his real roots as an unabashed idiosyncratic indie-rock anti-hero who made only occasional subtle forays into folk to embellish his songs. That was the memo I wrote back in 2007, when he released Cassadaga, the most overhyped CD in the history of Brilliant Bands Who Have Gone Wildly Astray in Service to their Bloated Egos.

I wrote that memo because I was so enamored of Bright Eyes' earlier work - in particular Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted: Put Your Ear to the Ground, the Song is in the Soil (I don't have the first one - yet) - that I could barely countenance his misguided metamorphosis into The Next Townes Van Zandt. Indeed, Conor is wickedly talented, and has scripted some masterpieces of traditional Americana music. But that is only one facet of his variegated gift, and entire albums of earnest folk-country warbles just wears really thin after a while.

Don't ge me wrong: I do like aspects of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Cassadaga lot, but I don't need two whole damn albums of such songs from Conor, when I know lurking beneath this preening folk facade is a quirky rock and roller who just aches to pour out a more offbeat ouevre. In fact, not only did Conor release Wide Awake and Cassdaga, his folk albums with Bright Eyes, but he also released two folk albums with the Mystic River Valley Band and one solo folk album. ENOUGH already with the folk-country crap! I LOVE classic country and folk but Conor was just overdoing it, because he wanted to be taken more Seriously. WHATEVER. The Americana stuff just degenerates into cringe-worthy cliche after a while, and has a stiflingly restricted path. Conor was ultimately inhibiting his copious skills by limiting himself to traditional folk.

(Okay, so to be fair, Oberst DID release Digital Ash in a Digital Urn concurrently with Wide Awake, and that album eschews the rootsy sound for a more electronic take, but it's hardly very notable as a substantial piece of work. Still, I'm sorry I sold it back, and I will be re-purchasing it soon.)

So Conor Oberst is BACK in FORM with The People's Key. It is a mesmerizing listen from start to finish, and one of his best, if not THE best, with Bright Eyes. And it almost pains me to say that given how ferociously I LOVE Fevers and Mirrors in particular.

And this back in form status is ultimately ironically tragic, because this, he declares, is the last album under the Bright Eyes moninker. I might weep, but then maybe it's better for Bright Eyes go to out with a bold bang instead of a wimpy whimper, like many bands end up doing. At the same time, this album could hail a new direction for Bright Eyes, should he decide to forego his doomful decision.

The People's Key is bookended with cosmic commentary from an eccentric musician-friend of Conor's, who's in a band called, endearingly enough, Refried Ice Cream. While the commentary is interesting (if syntactically marred at times) on the first few listens, it's true it kind of loses its luster after a while, and my fingers are usually tempted to forward through it to get to the flesh of the matter (i.e., the songs). Of course, the commentary appears again in flashes throughout the album, and it does serve to give it a kind of quaint cohesiveness. After all, lyrically the album treats the topics of science fiction and mystical matters, as well as more terrestial sociopolitical concerns. The lyrics, as usual, have their own darkly zenful zip, abounding in unorthdox imagery and introspective revelations.

In fact, the theme spattered throughout is one of cosmic connection; Oberst draws on sci-fi and mystical motifs to expound on the interconnectedness of humans - to each other, and to nature. The title song seems particularly concerned with the idea that humanity has veered from its primitive purpose and will eventually return to its original state, which involves a more ethereal communality. PASTE LYRICS

So rather than delivering yet another album informed by the influences of Americana legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylous Harris, et al, this album's impetus seems to come, oddly enough, from cheesy 80s pop. But Oberst refines that sometimes shallow, hollow sound, imbuing it with a soulful dignity. On some songs, Oberst makes liberal use of new wave synthesizers and Rick Springfield-simulating guitars, both of which in any other context might produce grimaces and groans. And yet, Oberst and his longtime producer, Mogis, render these effects in a way that is not just pleasing, but downright exhilirating. Songs like Shell Game and Jejune Stars recall the youthful exuberance of driving down the highway, stereo blaring, screaming along to some kitschy anthemic rocker like Jesse's Girl. Only Oberst's songs are more spiritually substantive.

Even though the album is largely a rock album, Oberst still finds room to allow his folk feathers to flourish. To that end, the usual mix of breathbreaking ballads, raw rockers, and slightly folksier numbers form the body of the album.

Mogis' production on The People's Key superbly showcases Conor's natural vocal stylings but also adds effects to infuse the songs with more dynamic depth. Indeed, the album merges the deliberate awkward uneveness of past Bright Eyes efforts with the more polished presentation of his recent albums. In the distant past, Oberst was content - nay, aimed - to sound amateurish in order to lend urgency to the songs.. His tunes captured the ragged passion of the moment and felt like live performances rather than studio recordings. But these songs are unmistakably studio-refined, and yet they faintly retain the charmingly immature quality that is a Bright Eyes signature.

And the latter is perhaps why some people cannot countenance Bright Eyes. In his early work, especially, Oberst was fond of nurturing a tremulous croon and even shrieking in agonized fashion at times, giving his songs a more dramatic climax. "Emo" is often what this type of music is termed, and it does merit its negative rep. In the case of BE, though, the vocal gimmick worked, because of its undeniable authenticity. In many instances with emo bands, ear-scraping screams sound forced, disingenuously histrionic, but if they evolve from real emotion, then they can add a sense of honest agony, as they did with BE.

Of course, the emo stuff is largely absent from this album (and was from Wide Awake and Cassadaga), and this may perhaps serve to add a few converts to the BE fanbase... and perhaps dissuade a few listeners as well - those who preferred a less slick-sounding palette, anyway.

But The People's Key does not suffer in any way from overproduction, and in my mind, is so viciously vibrant that it actually hails a bright new future for Oberst and company, if only the band would heed the call.

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