Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Steven Hanna
06/23/2005 | Nowplayingmag,.com | www.nowplayingmag.com/ | Album Review
All that "next Bob Dylan" talk has clearly gone to Conor Oberst's head, and being held up weekly as a god among men by the geek-chic cool kids on The O.C. certainly hasn't helped either. When Oberst released two records simultaneously earlier this year, I wasn't alone in grumblingly conceding the greatness of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning while focusing more volubly on the deficiencies of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, taking more satisfaction in sniping than in fawning because I sincerely feel like the guy's considerable artistic gifts are better nurtured by tough love than by tongue-hanging-out-of-the-mouth praise.
The latter disc is unquestionably flawed: Its songs seem more facile than Wide Awake's while the bloops and blips of its production are like the too-sweet glaze on a bland donut, and coming just after the new wave revival had crested and broken, the record felt like bandwagon-jumping from an act that has never been bandwagon-y. Oberst's admirable decision to tour the records separately, fronting a folk band for the spring's Wide Awake tour and putting together an electronified supergroup to back him on his current trek, could possibly be read as a perverse insistence on or as a bold stab at forcing his fans to evaluate the far lesser disc as its companion's creative equal.
Standing amid a palpably bored crowd at the Grove of Anaheim at last week's penultimate stop on the tour's current leg, it was tough to call the show a success regardless of what Oberst was out to do. Longtime Bright Eyes fans were unmistakably p.o.ed to find Oberst performing only two "old" songs one of which was the almost-unrecognizable obscurity "Neely O'Hara" and eyelinered hipsters there to dance away found all the sweat they'd drenched themselves in during the Faint's opening set completely dried up and caked on by the time they'd stood still through Oberst's hour-and-fifteen. Which was a shame, because the show was the finest we've seen all year.
From the beautifully-synchronized visuals projected on three screens a la Stop Making Sense and keyed to the music in lovely, subtle ways to the far-better-than-the-record song sequence which built to a stunning "I Believe in Symmetry" before Oberst moped through an obligatory fan-fave encore in "Lover I Don't Have to Love" the concert was so perfectly conceptualized that you realized the Digital Ash material is not by any means typical Bright Eyes done up in halfhearted electroclash style. This is a major artistic statement Oberst is making here, even if I'll be damned if I know exactly what it is. The arrangements, by Oberst along with producer Mike Mogis and right-hand-man Nate Walcott, are so much richer with an enormous 10-piece band, the keyboards from Faint synth-man Jacob Thiele so gorgeously cold, and the thrilling guitar work of Yeah Yeah Yeahs ax-man Nick Zinner so dead-on thunderous, that it seemed impossible not to be moved by what you were hearing. And yet the crowd was so indifferent that you constantly had to move around the room as shouted explanations from Bright Eyes devotees to casual johnny-come-latelies about how good Conor usually is, and how off he seemed tonight, kept threatening to drown out the band's quieter thrashings. Sometimes a crowd doesn't deserve the show they're given, and it's possible that the greatness of this tour will only become apparent when it grows to legendary status. Closer "Easy/Lucky/Free" wailed like the finale of a great opera, and I suspect it'll only sound better with the passage of time.
A lot of Dylan comparisons get thrown at Oberst, and you can take them or leave them. But attentive listeners on this tour got a serious taste of what it must have been like to be in the crowd at one of those electric shows in '66, when Dylan's folk-loving audience were treated to a taste of the future. That Oberst gave us that taste by dipping his toe in what, a week ago, I would have called the played-out sounds of the post-punk revival, is odd and wonderful. The rest of the Grove audience probably limped home to their parents' houses and went back to spinning Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted over and over. Me, I wiped the dust off Digital Urn and gave it another shot. And yeah, it sounded better this time, perhaps even on the level of Wide Awake. Whaddya know? Guess it worked.


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