Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews



Author: Shawn M. Smith
12/17/2004 | | | Album Review
Now, for my second review, I decided to take on a challenge. Mind you, I am not scaling Mt. Kilmanjaro, but to critique another one of my personal favorite bands at a time when the music community seems to be throwing themselves at this artist's feet is a big deal.

I love Bright Eyes. I love Conor Oberst. Everyone who does seems to think that he is the second coming of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or even Paul Simon. That's a lofty title to try to live up to, as Mr. Dylan is the man responsible for bringing an entire genre to the forefront with his socio-political songs and albums, and Cohen and Simon are also still churning out relevant material today. Except for Simon's song from "The Wild Thornberries Movie." That song blew.

Now, for a 24 year old from Omaha, Nebraska, this may seem like an insurmountable amount of pressure, but Conor seems to take it all in stride. He played his first concert 10 years ago, so I think the guy can handle it. The newest Filter Magazine features the boy genius himself on the cover, and delves into numerous topics, especially his two new albums (both slated for a January 25, 2005 release.) The catch, it seems, is that Oberst decided to branch out, and try some new things. One album, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, will not stray far from his folk sensibilities. The other though, Digital Ash for a Digital Urn, is a more synth-pop/techno inspired work, featuring the likes of Jimmy Tamborello and Simon Joyner. Tamborello is the man behind the beats of last year's stunning Postal Service album, Give Up, and Joyner is one of the most original beat mixers I have heard in some time.

In October, Bright Eyes released two CD singles, each featuring one track off of each new album. They were simultaneously featured on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles list at #1 & 2.

Lua is the folk inspired disk, features one track from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and three other unreleased songs. Its his usual musical stylings and such, but Oberst's arrangements feel much tighter. Part of that may be touring with both R.E.M. and the "Boss" himself, Bruce Springsteen, as part of the Vote for Change Concert Tour. It also could just be his natural maturation as an artist. Either way, he kicks ass. Take It Easy (Love Nothing) comes from the more radical of the two albums, Digital Ash for a Digital Urn.

Now, before I begin, here is a word of warning: Conor does draw one MAJOR comparison to Bob Dylan that I have gradually started to notice as time has gone on: his voice.

This guy is no Bocelli, Josh Groban, or Dean Martin, so if that is the kind of music you want, you may want to take your time and ease into his work. His voice isn't terrible. See, at times, its his most adequate instrument, capable of conveying an relative, simple sadness that most artists would kill to produce, and at others he just sounds like he's screaming off-key.

I think I get it, though. That's why I am a fan. I love Dylan's voice for the same reason; the warble they both produce shows a vulnerability that can't be conveyed in their respective lyrics alone. If you see Bright Eyes in person, you will notice a difference, as he gets much stronger vocally with practice, and when not mixed to the umpteenth degree, his timbre is quite unique. Hey, if you like Bjork or PJ Harvey, this guy is not hard to listen to at all.

Now, the CDs:

Lua is a four-track single of the traditional Bright Eyes works. There is one track of just Conor alone on guitar and vocals, another with him playing all of the instruments, and two with the usual cast of Saddle Creek players.

The title track is one of the best Bright Eyes songs since "Method Acting," off Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground . I am not going to lie, I love when people mess with the "verse, chorus, verse" structure of a song, and treat it like a poem; no real ending or beginning, yet a solid, definitive structure.

The song features a lyric that hits closer to home than I believed possible, "...what is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is." In lieu of recent life events, this lyric summarizes so much about love and romance. Having spoken with many fans of Bright Eyes, too often I get the same response, "Conor must be able to read my mind."

The guy just writes the stuff you and I think, but never say. Well, I, for one, lack the social filter responsible for not saying everything that may be on my mind, but Oberst really opens up in his songs. The small moments and simple, subtle feelings that we all seem to miss out on, he conveys with a conviction and sincerity that most artists can't deliver. He really exposes himself for his fans and critics, and does it in an unflinching manner.

"Well Whiskey" is a bluesy-jaunt through the Deep South. Personally, I found the track predictable, but there is never anything wrong with artistic reliability. There is a timeless element to the song, as though he borrowed long-forgotten bluegrass songs, and twisted them to fit his stylings. Also, any song that has a harmonica AND an organ, I am all about it, so "Well Whiskey" may just turn into a fan favorite. I personally know that it will be stuck on repeat in my stereo for a long time.

The third track, "I Woke Up With This Song In My Head This Morning," is a quickly paced tune, reminiscent of anything that could be on a potential "Best of John Mellencamp." For the record, I liked Mellencamp a LOT more when he had "Cougar" in his name. But I digress.

Now, if this song doesn't show you how experimental Bright Eyes can be when it comes to remaining "folk," then I don't know what does. He, like Dylan in '69, uses an electric guitar as a means to show more emotion in a song already riddled with it. God bless him for it.

The closing song, "True Blue," which is not an homage to Madonna, mentions the color more times than that God-forsaken Eiffel 65 song, "Blue (Da Ba Dee.)" Man, I truly hated that song, so it kinda ruined my feelings about this number. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to choke those three dudes. Otherwise, after the 14th or 15th listen, you will find another classic Oberst work, one in which his desire to retain a central theme based around a color (this time, anyway) doesn't kill the overall mood of the song. He wants to remind everyone to stay true to who they are. Staying true is something he has managed to do by remaining with the same record label he founded as a teenager (Saddle Creek Records), despite numerous companies' concerted efforts to corral his services. Needless to say, Oberst is a man that stands for a lot.

Now, anyone who knows me personally, knows what a dork I can be when it comes to CD packaging. I cannot bring myself to download anything, for the simple reason that I desperately yearn for the smell of a new CD, artwork, and all the goodies they manage to slip inside. Take It Easy (Love Nothing) is presented in the simplest of cases: red. Now, this can elicit a myriad of responses from redheads such as myself, as I personally detest the color for many reasons. I just think it looks stupid, and when I wear it, people use my clothing choice as an opportunity to tell me their feelings on what shade of red my hair is.

The artwork that is hidden inside, behind the red case, is pretty cool though, depicting the human circulatory system, a design that just fascinates me. After I bought this single, I stared at these pictures for a good 20 minutes on the train. I guess I am a geek.

Digital Ash for a Digital Urn is not only a great name for an album, but its collection of singles, if they're any indication of the album's fare, will rule. Lately, its en vogue for a talented rock artist to deliver more electronica inspired works. Sometimes it works (i.e. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie teaming up with Jimmy Tamborello for the Postal Service album Give Up last year.) Sometimes it doesn't, like with Jewel's last album, and that person is called a "sell-out." And I think I have found the reason.

It rarely works because so little dance music places any sort of importance on the lyrics. It's essentially pop music with hyperactive beats.

When it comes down to it, I guess that I am a lyrics "whore," so to speak.

For fans of Jewel, though, they all really, truly want to believe that the one-time folk-goddess hadn't just written the worst corporate rock record since Starship's Knee Deep in the Hoopla, but she did. Way to piss on your career, Ms. Kilcher. Ugh.

Now, in defense of all electronica/techno fans, no one really buys Underworld CDs for the lyrics. Or Paul Oakenfold. Its all about the beats, like mainstream Hip-Hop now that Tupac is dead. Without a strong hook, and some mind-blowing percussion in the background, your potential dance hit is just another Six Flags jingle. Thanks again, Venga Boys.

The title track off Take It Easy (Love Nothing) was aided by the beat mastering of the aforementioned Tamborello, who brings life to a very sexy song (yes, a song CAN be sexy without being overt in its lyrics) The tempo here reminds me a great deal of Oberst's side-project, Desaparecidos, and is a remarkable and fun departure from his normal fare. Hopefully, this IS the track that makes Digital Ash for a Digital Urn because I really like it.

"Burn Rubber" is a great song as well because it reminds me of Kid Koala's "Roboshuffle" from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. The main beat flows nicely towards the song's conclusion, at which point, a crazed banjo beat brings it all home. Nice touch, as banjos are neat when not used as the primary instrument. In those instances, banjos remind me of a bad state fair "entertainment" pavilion. And fairs always smell like the 4H tents.

Bright Eyes close this wicked experiment with "Cremation," an instrumental track that is as close to Oberst doing straight techno as you will find. Think Yanni: Live at the Acropolis meets Some Freaking Acid Trip Spent Listening to Radiohead's "Amnesiac".

That last one was a joke, by the way. Please don't go Google it.

The only "vocal" contribution on this track is Conor, we can presume, breathing into the microphone, as the music swirls around him. If ever there is a digital hurricane anywhere in Music-land, this would be it. And, just when you think its over, there's just a hint more delicate metal percussion.

Unlike the "car doors" that were used on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and "Burn Rubber." Seriously, read the liner notes. They actually closed car doors for percussive noise.

That's ballsy.



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Cassadaga (Remastered)

Cassadaga (Remastered)

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