Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Niz Proskocil
02/04/2005 | Omaha World Herald | www.omaha.com | Feature
The underdog wins again.

After two Bright Eyes songs landed last fall at No. 1 and No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles Sales chart -- beating out Jessica Simpson and Chingy -- the Omaha band has scored another impressive chart feat.

Led by Creighton Prep grad Conor Oberst, two just-released albums by the band are in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 chart, keeping company with such higher-profile names as Kenny Chesney, Eminem and Usher.

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" is No. 10. At No. 15 is "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."

It's a remarkable accomplishment since Bright Eyes is part of a small, independent label. And the band's music usually is not played on commercial radio.

The chart, which was released Wednesday and measures album sales nationwide, typically is dominated by hiphop, country and pop superstars. Without the marketing clout and big budget of a major record label, it's rare for lesserknown acts to break onto the charts with even one Top 20 debut, let alone two.

"I think it exceeded all of our guesses, which is great," said Jason Kulbel of Saddle Creek Records, the Omahabased label that released the two albums.

Bright Eyes' only other appearance on the list came in 2002, when the album "Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" made its debut at No. 161, then dropped off the chart the next week.

Oberst, soon to be 25, has been an indie-rock favorite for the last decade. But it wasn't until last fall that he started gaining more attention on a mainstream level.

A high-profile political tour with Bruce Springsteen led to a flurry of coverage by news organizations. The new albums received rave reviews in Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek and the New York Times. And National Public Radio's Web site featured an online broadcast of Bright Eyes' recent Washington, D.C., concert.

The attention from reporters was "a huge part" of the albums' success, Kulbel said. Another factor was that fan demand for new Bright Eyes music has been building for nearly three years.

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," a collection of countrytinged, acoustic folk songs, sold 56,167 copies. The electronicdriven "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" sold 45,736 copies.

The sales figures mark the highest debut for any artist on Saddle Creek Records, widely considered one of the nation's premier indie-rock labels.

Despite the first-week success, Kulbel doesn't expect the albums to climb higher on the charts. The usual record-industry pattern is for sales to drop after the first week of release.

Previously, Saddle Creek's highest Billboard debut was the Faint's "Wet From Birth," which last fall charted at No. 99.

The new Bright Eyes albums also made a sizable dent on other Billboard charts. "I'm Wide Awake" is No. 2 on the independent album chart, where "Digital Ash" is No. 3.

But there's no champagne flowing and no rounds of hugs and high-fives around the Saddle Creek offices. The mood is business as usual.

"We're all pretty low-key," Kulbel said of the label's seven full-time employees.

When the chart news hit, Oberst and his band mates were in Florida, preparing for a concert last night in Miami.

"I'm sure he thinks it's pretty cool, yet doesn't care about it much," Kulbel said. "He's just way more proud to get the records out."


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