Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews



Author: Spence D
04/12/2007 | | | Album Review
Conor Oberst continues his slow burn descent into the realm of quietude and calmly injected neo-Americana angst on his latest effort under the Bright Eyes banner. Following in the dusty pathways earlier laid out by such explorers as Neil Young, Howe Gelb, and others who have persisted in idiosyncratic post-folk music, Oberst delivers his songs in a distinctively delicate warble that crackles with subtle emotion and introspective imagination.

For example the lead-off track, "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," while starting out in a very Beatlesesque way (think "A Day In The Life") eventually changes tact and couples Oberst's scratchy timbre with haunting female backing vocals that wisp throughout the track with airy precision. The song itself gradually builds up from restrained acoustic trappings to be fleshed out with orchestration and rippling percussion, Oberst's voice gaining strength and command as the instrumentation escalates. In many ways it sounds like a dusted, Americanized riff on mid-period Pink Floyd (think "Is There Anybody Out There?"), if only for the way that Oberst chooses his phrasing and pitches his voice.

With "Four Winds," Oberst pumps up the volume, going for a full-tilt bluegrass swagger complete with fiddle and some Camper Van Beethoven inspired musical whimsy a la when they got down Hee-Haw style. The warble is still existent, but toned down a bit as Oberst goes more for the gut with an impassioned vocal swoon. The upbeat tempo masks intriguingly morose lyrics ("…like a newly orphaned refugee retracing my steps/ on the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead…"). If that weren't enough, the organ fills give it all a warped Dylan vibe.

"If The Brakeman Turns My Way" returns to a sense of melancholy, twangy steel guitar and sweltering organ combining with snappy drums to create an air of distant sorrow and reflective memory. "Hot Knives" comes in stark contrast, letting loose with fuzzed guitar, assertive vocals, and a strange hum rush that swirls and swerves with a sense of minor frenzy. It's pretty damn epic, if you ask me, teeming with lyrics like "she just vanished into a thick mist of change" and orchestral lushness that pulsates and throbs with intensity.

Oberst and company continue the roller coaster by dipping back into mellow serenity on "Make a Plan to Love Me," which incorporates beautiful female vocals that meld with flirtatious strings to create an almost ethereal swatch of soniference that unfolds like a forgotten orchestral pop song from a bygone era. Haunting and jubilant and strange all at once. From the dreamy back to the swaggering is what happens with "Soul Singer In a Session Band," which returns Oberst to his patented warble, though this time with pomp and circumstance and wonderfully droll lyrics that whip out snide romanticism like "I was a hopeless romantic, now I'm just turning tricks."

"Classic Cars" continues with the ramble and shackle, delivering a true blue modern country classic about love gone wrong, long lost icons, and that deep down sadness that can't be scraped from the soul of your feet no matter how hard you try. "Middleman" returns to a rustic, front porch sensibility, fiddle and guitar mixing with mouth harp and tinkling percussion to create a sense of forlorn meditation. The lyrics reflect the mood and lift you into a strange netherworld of dreamtime flotation.

"Cleanse Song" serves up some psychedelic steel guitar that bubbles like underwater melodic enhancement while Oberst waxes poetic about detoxing and starting over, albeit with a sense of ironic detachment all the while. "No One Would Riot For Less" returns to the stripped down pensiveness, nothing but Oberst's trebly warble and gently plucked acoustic guitar augmented occasionally by distant female whispers and ever-so-quiet orchestration.

Seemingly never content to stay with one emotion for too long, Oberst lightens things up, both musically and lyrically on the somewhat bouncy "Coat Check Dream Song," that unravels in an opiated state driven by a wonderful bassline that slinks and slithers with altered state supremacy. "I Must Belong Somewhere" shifts yet again, going back to exuberant country honky tonk stylings, Oberst losing his warble for a straightforward singing manner that shuffles with upbeat enthusiasm.

The album's final number, "Lime Tree," rounds things out on the down and out sorrowful tip, Oberst singing with restraint over a filtered backdrop of staggered acoustic guitar and gently intrusive wisps of orchestral ambiance. It's beautifully disconnected from the rest of the album, feeling like a stand alone number while still tying into the overall feel of the record itself. It's a strangely demure way to end an album, leaving listeners in a somber mood of semi-discontent. I'm not 100% I agree with its placement; it's a haunting number, to be sure, but might have been better served elsewhere on the album rather than as the closing escape.

In the end Cassadaga is a strangely inviting album consisting of a lot of late night somnambulism, early Sunday morning hangover retreats, and spine tingling epics that resonate with a bizarre sense of déjà vu. To this end the astute music listener will find Oberst channeling too many other lyrical magicians to actually put a firm finger on his exact pinpoints of influence. Thankfully he manages to bring enough of his own bugged out personality to each cut so as to paint a picture of obscurity and confusion that warms the dusty cockles of the brain and stimulates the bubbling the intelligence of the heart in equal measure and leaves one with an album worthy of repeated listens to uncover the overlooked nuances of lyrical whimsy and musical integrity.

Definitely Download:
1. "Four Winds"
2. "Hot Knives"
3. "Make A Plan To Love Me"
4. "Soul Singer In a Session Band"
5. "Classic Cars"
6. "Middleman"
7. "Cleanse Song"
8. "Coat Check Dream Song"
9. "I Must Belong Somewhere"


LP / CD / MP3