Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Jodi Belgard
01/21/2005 | The Town Talk | www.thetowntalk.com | Album Review
Conor Oberst sings as if he's standing naked on a crowded street corner, voice trembling from the subzero temperature.

People may think he's crazy, but they listen because he seems like he has something to say.

He does.

Oberst writes songs from the point of view of a precocious child who notices everything.

The 24-year-old Bright Eyes frontman -- a band that closely resembles a traveling circus of musicians -- has been compared to Bob Dylan.

Like Dylan's, Oberst's songs are epic tales of politics, love, drugs and beauty. And Oberst can be a little long-winded. But when the record stops, you'll be dripping with his irony and subtly, ready to take another hit.

Bright Eyes will simultaneously release two new albums on its Saddle Creek label Tuesday.

The albums take sort of a "Jeckyl and Hyde" approach. "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" is a mostly quiet, folksy album, while "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" goes a little "postal" with its samples and programming by The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello.

But if anyone can pull this off, it's Oberst.

On "Wide Awake," Oberst and Saddle Creek label-mates Maria Taylor of Azure Ray, Clark Beachle of The Faint and Matt Maginn of Cursive, along with a few other guests, create a moody tapestry woven with the thread of classic country, contemporary folk and raw emotion.

Country/folk legend Emmylou Harris may have something to do with this.

She lends her voice to "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," "Another Travelin' Song" and "Landlocked Blues."

This collaboration is easily comparable to the Jack White/Loretta Lynn duets on Lynn's "Van Lear Rose," but I think Oberst and Harris pull off something White could only have dreamed of.

Their voices, both trembling and strong, create a sense of urgency in each other. It's as if Oberst's lyrics are time bombs that must be diffused.

The rollicking, train-hopping "Another Travelin' Song" features Mike Mogis on mandolin, pedal steel and guitar, along with Harris' backing vocals.

They take it down a notch on "Landlocked Blues."

Harris softens the blow of Oberst's voice in lyrics like "I've grown tired of holding this post/I feel more like a stranger each time I come home/So I'm making a deal with the devils of faith/Saying 'let me walk away, please/You'll be free, child, once you have died/From the shackles of language and immeasurable time/And then we can trade places, play musical grace/'Til then walk away, walk away"

As quiet and thought-provoking as "Wide Awake" is, "Digital Ash" is that much percussion-driven and in-your-face.

Fans of the The Postal Service will quickly recognize Tamborello's presence on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)".

On "Ship In a Bottle," Oberst opens with "I want to be the surgeon that cuts you open/And fixes all of life's mistakes."

He follows that a few bars down with "Something's eating at you/wakes you up in the night/if you're digging the past/who knows what you'll find/read the newspaper print off the microfische slide/and you're holding your breath for the rest of your life."

Nicker Zinner, guitarist for the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, plays guitar on five tracks and keyboards on two. Clay Leverett and Andy LeMaster of Saddle Creek's Now Its Overhead pick up bass, drums, guitar and vocals on several tracks, as well.

As with all of Oberst's projects, he gives his all -- and it's remarkable.

The musical arrangements on both albums are fluid and powerful.

And it doesn't hurt that so many of his pals are willing to chip in and rely on Oberst's musical judgment.


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