Reviews

Every Day and Every Night

11/01/1999 | Magnet Magazine | Feature
"I get letters from people," says Conor Oberst, the manically charged focal point of Omaha, Neb.'s Bright Eyes.
"Yeah, they're from girls across the country," jokes accordionist Tim Kasher, referencing Oberst's newfound indie-rock hottie status.

"No, they're addressed to a friend," Oberst insists. "They just want to tell me their problems."

Judging from Bright Eyes' latest LP, Letting off the Happiness (Saddle Creek), playing armchair psychiatrist to mixed-up teens is probably the very last thing Oberst should be doing.  Consider the following lines from album opener "If Winter Ends":"I give myself three days to feel better/Or else I swear I'm driving off a fucking cliff/Because if I can't make myself feel better/Then how can I expect anyone else to give a shit." Maybe somebody had better call the hotline.

It's easy to understand how why some would feel empathy with a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Oberst, Bright Eyes' 19-year-old singer/guitarist, writes songs cast with such a personal glare and emotional pitch that objectivity and detachment never figure into the equation-which is problematic when that ex-girlfriend is in the audience and it all hits too close to home.

"Actually, I've been kind of freaking out lately," says Oberst over a veggie lunch.  "Playing shows in Omaha, I just get this horrible feeling that I've said too much.  I get upset if I'm bumming people out."

It's the acoustic-guitar strum, alternately frenetic and subdued, that allows Oberst to tap into a stream of unfettered emotions and great, big run-on sentences of existential woe.  Think fellow Nebraskan Simon Joyner or Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum, then shout the rural folk/rock gospel a little louder and with feeling.

Like a distant Midwestern cousin in search of his ancestral homestead, Oberst ventured to Athens, Ga., the geographical root of the Elephant 6 family tree, to record portions of Letting off the Happiness.  Armed with a demo cassette, Oberst enlisted the voice and keyboard of Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal) and the drums of Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel) on a few of Happiness' tracks. "Barnes Explosion," muses Oberst, who clearly relished the opportunity to work with some of his favorite musicians on the planet.

"I'm definitely influenced by [Neutral Milk Hotel]," says Oberst.  "Any comparison (to them) is fine with me." But when Oberst pleadingly sings, "There's no heat in this house/I can't breathe with these words in my mouth" on "Contrast and Compare," you know that Bright Eyes' directive comes from within.

Oberst culls the touring version of Bright Eyes from the incestuous Omaha music scene, the current lineup including Kasher, drummer Joe Knapp and violinist Tiffany Kowalski.  In the studio, it's the svengali-like direction of producers/players Mike Mogis and Andy Lemaster that propels Oberst's tunes toward majestic compositions with the odd organ, finger cymbal, or electo-static burst.

With an upcoming EP, Every Day and Every Night, and an as-yet-untitled LP in the works, Oberst promises the larger scale orchestration Happiness hints at.  But they're certainly not the first musical steps he's taken.

"The first tape I made came out when I was 12 or 13, when I was in seventh grade," Oberst says, laughing.  "My voice - I sound like a child and I'm saying childish things.  There's a song called 'Space Invaders,' there's a song called 'Puddle Stompers.'"

"With that first tape," Kasher continues, "Conor went down to the local record store and tried to sell it for , what, $17?"

"No, $25." corrects Oberst.  "We just didn't want anyone to buy it.  We figure if someone was going to buy it and have this embarrassing thing, we might as well get 25 bucks for it.  I don't think it ever sold."


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