Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Matt Schild
02/04/2005 | | | Album Review
When Conor Oberst announced that he'd round up members of the Omaha, Neb., music community to serve as his backing band for Bright Eyes, it was no big deal. When he said he'd gather them for an electronic album, however, things started sounding a bit fishy. With the increasingly incestuous Saddle Creek family around him, could he emerge without sounding like label mates The Faint? Could he succeed as an electronic artist?

As Digital Ash in a Digital Urn shows, the answer to the first question is yes. Getting to the bottom of the second one, however, is a much more pressing problem. The companion piece to I'm Awake, it's Morning, released simultaneously through Saddle Creek, it's the weaker of the two albums. That weakness is partially due to Oberst's explorations into waters in which he's not completely comfortable, partially because many of the tracks on Digital Ash sound as if they were aborted attempts at traditional singer/songwriter fare, then saved from the ash can through a bit of electronic manipulation. Considering Oberst's folk forte, several of the tracks on this album sound a little awkward.

Bright Eyes looks to recast folk songs for the digital age on this album rather than to invent an electronic direction. With the widespread availability of personal computers and the relatively low-cost sound editing software, it's not too far of a stretch to picture programming usurping the battered six-string as the populist instrument of the 21st century. Framed in that light, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn's relative simplicity offers an alternative to the hopelessly convoluted laptronica of Xiu Xiu or Joan of Arc or Dntel/The Postal Service's relatively slick pop angle. "Hit the Switch" gropes along as a drumbeat dominates the mix, nearly drowning out the ethereal guitar and synthetic melodies that creep into the song's empty corners. "Light Pollution," takes on a more straightforward indie rock vibe, with guitar and drums settling in on top of the slightest electronic manipulation. Other tracks take a more obvious electronic approach. "Arc of Time (Time Code)" puts twisting electronic beats under glistening electronics and bits of computer-tweaked guitar. Oberst taps Dntel and The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello for the programming on "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," which, unsurprisingly, sounds like a Dntel cast-off. "Theme to Piņata" moves into a sleepy, soft-focus dream world where bit-head melodies run free of heavy programming.

Most of Digital Ash's electronics serve to distract listeners from the usual focal point of a Bright Eyes record: Oberst's lyrics. It's not too much of a waste, either, as most of the tracks on this album are his weakest since 1998's Letting Off the Happiness (Saddle Creek). Opener "Time Code" is nothing more than a pastiche of unconnected imagery that's more of a hallucination than Oberst's usual pithy commentary. "Easy/Lucky/Free" is a shaky rumination on war and the newer world order that's a pale comparison to the ones on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. "Ship in a Bottle" is a sappy emo-styled love song. Outside of a handful of songs ("Hit the Switch," "I Believe in Symmetry" and "Down a Rabbit Hole") none of Oberst's lyrics on this album could stand up in the arenas of spacious folk-pop in which he usually sets his songs.

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn finds Oberst attempting to expand his sound, but still not ready to make the jump past folksy singer/songwriter material. It's a mildly interesting aside for Bright Eyes' longtime fans, but more of a curious novelty for anyone who isn't a diehard. Fortunately, I'm Awake, It's Morning offers fans a more stable and better conceived batch of songs to balance this set.