Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Brian Fogarty
02/28/2005 | Exoduster.com | www.exoduster.com | Album Review
Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes have been on an upward track of brilliance for sometime now; to the point that you wish people would stop heralding Oberst as the greatest songwriter of his generation. Not that he doesn‚t deserve the vast praise, but you just want to let him do his thing, in his space, in his time. Though it appears that Oberst is under constant pressure to live up to all this billing, Bright Eyes‚ double release clearly establishes that he is something special.

There is little Bright Eyes‚ history that most people interested in the indie rock haven‚t heard before. What is more important to keep in the mind is the scope and depth that Oberst has been performing at for roughly a decade. Oberst starting recording at 14 and helped found Saddle Creek records as an avenue for himself and Omaha friends to release their own material. Now with an n-th number of Bright Eyes records, many nicely packaged in last year‚s excellent vinyl Bright Eyes‚ box set, and with Saddle Creek bands making a killing, Oberst has been able to expand his material and range. Of course, much of this was started long before today and long before 2003‚s Lifted or the Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Yet, you can‚t underestimate the influence of Lifted on Bright Eyes‚ ascendance. The record propelled Bright Eyes to a Short List nomination, spots on late night shows and pre-election shows with REM and Bruce Springsteen. All the while, Bright Eyes were doing quite well for themselves on their own touring schedule and regiment. For Oberst, this included starting his own label Team Love and putting out records by Tilly and the Wall and Neva Dinova.

In the midst of all these happenings for the past few years, Oberst left the barren lands of Omaha for a residence in NYC. Perhaps wanting a change in lifestyle and musical thoughts from the sometime noted musically-incestuous Omaha crowd, Oberst set to work on these two records; two records that are obviously both ŒBright Eyes‚ but also show Oberst‚s virtuosity as a folk-country perform and as electronic-based artist ˆ though we‚ll talk about the important differences in a few moments. When he was ready to record, Oberst headed back to Omaha & Lincoln to record with Mike Mogis, as well as to Athens, GA to record with Now It‚s Overhead‚s Andy LeMaster. Oberst also enlisted his usual group of helpers including Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley) and Clark Baechle (the Faint) on drums, LeMaster on vocals/guitars, Mogis guitars/keys, Maria Taylor (Azure Ray) on vocals, as well as the addition of Emmylou Harris on vocals for I‚m Wide Awake, Jim James (My Morning Jacket) on vocals for I‚m Wide Awake, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) on guitars for Digital Ash and Jimmy Tamborello (Postal Service) on Digital Ash. Thankfully, and completely unlike most hip hop records, these guest appearances/musical aiding & abetting work to enhance an already amazing Oberst product. In the realm of what musical collaboration is all about, this is the gold standard.

The major gripe some people have with Oberst is his fragility and his aching, trembling, vibrato vocals. In some, this creates a visceral reaction ˆ particularly on his hardcore ballads. For those individuals, I‚m Wide Awake, It‚s Morning is probably not the best place to start in your new journey to appreciate Bright Eyes ˆ and you should step over to the electronic Digital Ash In a Digital Urn. For the rest of us, we‚ll start with I‚m Wide Awake.

Oberst starts I‚m Awake with no illusions that he is anything other than a singer-songwriter in a traditionalist folk style. The first minute-and-a-half on „At the Bottom of Everything‰ Oberst tells a rather off story before breaking into one of the best songs on the record. Along with mandolin by Mogis and vocals by James, Oberst‚s appeal is swiftly evident within two spins and it will have you quickly going back for more ˆ allowing yourself to skip past the introduction. This is followed by the slower „We Are Nowhere and It‚s Now‰ where Oberst sings lines like „Stars that clear have been dead for years, but the idea just lives on‰ and Harris lends her vocals to create splendid moments such as „I haven‚t been gone very long, but it feels like a lifetime.‰ Coupled with „At the Bottom of Everything‰ this is a brilliant way to begin a record. „Old Soul Song‰ is a slow mover that again hints at Oberst‚s NYC experiences, while „Lua‰ was the pre-album single that Bright Eyes released. Putting in prospective with the other nine tracks on I‚m Awake, „Lua,‰ again set in NYC, might be one of the Œworst‚ songs on the record. Of course, this is all relatively and comparatively. This is followed by the six-plus-minute „Train Under Water‰ which slows through an introduction until a full band comes in and the pedal steel of Mogis is pushed real hard. The harmonies on the chorus of „Train Under Water‰ make this a special song. „First Day of My Life‰ finds Oberst back with just an acoustic guitar and minimal backing instruments for a song that is perfect for a lost or distant love. Finally picking up the tempo, „Another Travelin‚ Song‰ sounds exactly like a traveling song should sound like and is a rip-roaring good time ˆ nearly a hoot-n-hollering number. When Harris comes in on the chorus and when Oberst sings „I‚m hunched over a typewriter, I guess you call that painting in a cave,‰ „Another Travelin‚ Song‰ strikes a masterful highlight. To bring things back to a natural state of equilibrium, Oberst and Harris couple for a stripped-down, minimalist version of „Land Locked Blues‰ ˆ which originally appeared on Saddle Creek‚s 50 release. Though I love the addition of Harris on this song, the original version with a full band is preferred. „Poison Oak‰ is a sneaky remarkable song. It begins slow with acoustic guitar and Oberst‚s vocals and then gradual crescendos in a first phase that you enjoy, and then a second phase but then there is a Œchorus‚/fab section that completely blows your mind. „Poison Oak‰ is one of those songs where you get rewarded for paying attention the whole time. Though this would be a tremendous closer to a tremendous record, Oberst decides to musical lightening things up a smidge on „Road To Joy‰ ˆ though not necessarily content-wise. „Road To Joy‰ comes across like a knockout blow for his Omaha rock crew and provides the line for the album‚s title.

For most, writing, producing and recording a likely awarding winning record would be enough for someone‚s immediate period of life. But Oberst decided to pull out his electronic-based collaboration that had been circulating in his mind for some time to a release concurrent album. While your immediate thought may be of Postal Service-like material, Digital Ash follows more traditional Bright Eyes‚ themes, with just a replacement by electronic instruments. Stretching out twelve songs over fifty-minutes, Oberst has some significant highs and lows on Digital Ash ˆ which actually helps underscore the brilliance of I‚m Wide Awake. Part of the downside of appeal is that as an electronic rock album, Digital Ash isn‚t at the top of its game like I‚m Wide Awake is. Nonetheless, there are number of songs worth mentioning and worth paying attention to. This includes the wonderfully synths-driven „Gold Mine Gutted‰ which hooks you with its chorus and the bridge. „Gold Mine Gutted‰ is followed up by the oddly-latter-day Paul-Simon-feel „Arc of Time‰ that is both reassuring and disturbing for its underlying sense. On the first single „Take It Easy (Love Nothing),‰ Postal Service‚s Jimmy Tamborello joins Oberst in a decidedly more rock-orientated tone as well as some of the blips that one expects from a Tamborello-worked product. „Hit the Switch‰ is clearly a classic Bright Eyes‚ song simply clothed in minimal electronics sheath ˆ particularly given the lyrics and the vocal cadence. „I Believe in Symmetry‰ comes through with electronic-magic after an awkward opening, while „Light Pollution‰ is in the same compelling rock vein as „Take It Easy (Love Nothing).‰ Digital Ash is rounded out by the impressive Cardigans-like „Theme From Pinata‰ and the longer drawn out „Easy/Lucky/Free‰ ˆ both of which feature Taylor‚s ethereal vocals.

Simply releasing two concurrent, separate and different styles record puts Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes in rarified air. Making either of them near perfect takes you up a notch. That Oberst is able to come up with sheer brilliance on I‚m Wide Awake, It‚s Morning, then switch styles and momentum to write the strong and solid, if a bit deficient, electronic-based Digital Ash In a Digital Urn is quite amazing. Bright Eyes have already hit the road in support of I‚m Wide Awake and surely will spend the next couple of years on the road. In this time, there should be a shift to supporting Digital Ash. It wouldn‚t surprise me in the least if Oberst decides to form an entirely new outfit to live out his electronic fantasy. With the Faint, Broken Spindles, Statistics, etc. already in the family, it shouldn‚t be very difficult to see such a new endeavor come to fruition.


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