Reviews

Cassadaga

Author: Brian Fogarty
07/02/2007 | Exoduster.com | www.exoduster.com | Album Review
There are many out there looking to punch, kick, and shoot holes in Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes – each new release is met with a maelstrom of attention, both accommodating and adversarial. But the fact of the matter is that Oberst consistently puts out records at such a higher level than anyone else. With the pressure of following up the simultaneous 2005 releases of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and Oberst more recent attention from his political offerings, the thirteen-track Cassadaga (which is a town in Florida full of psychics) keeps you constantly surprised, content, and amazed at what Oberst and company can do.

In support of the dual 2005 albums, Bright Eyes went on extensive touring and Oberst began in earnest his crusade against Clear Channel – including canceling a show here in St. Louis because of CC's link the venue The Pageant. The international touring wore out the group and the band sought some down time. While Bright Eyes kept a lower-profile in the past year, Oberst has made become more visible through his political musical offerings – continuing on from his participation in the Vote for Change tour. The highpoint of this was the single "When the President Talks to God." Following up on his past actions, Cassadaga is ripe with political and social messages, meanings, and mentions; though certainly it is not in parallel form to Neil Young's Living with War. Instead, Oberst continues with themes and views of everyday life; for Oberst, seeing it through the eyes of a top-flight lyrist.

Again utilizing his core members and producers of Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, Oberst recorded Cassadaga all over the U.S., including LA, NYC, and Portland, instead of just using Mogis' recording HQ Presto! in Omaha. This shifting d้cor seems to have influenced the worldliness feel of Cassadaga. As before, Oberst employs Team Saddle Creek and various guests to fill out each and every song. Among his temporary work staff are Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley), Andy LeMaster (Now It's Overhead), Maria Taylor, Gillian Welch, Janet Weiss (Sleater Kinney), and M. Ward. Along with this endless cadre of performers, Oberst relies on Walcott's string arrangements on songs like "Hot Knives" to build exceptionally rich music.

Similar in form to the opening of I'm Wide Awake, Cassadaga opens on "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killeed)" with a woman psychic ramblings under strings before the actual begins two minutes in with the lines "Corporate or colonial/the movement is unstoppable." A fine song in lyrical content, "Clairaudients"' slow movement is not what's going to enamor you to Bright Eyes. Instead, the magic begins in earnest on the follower "Four Winds." Referencing the album title and including more references than one could honestly keep track of, "Four Winds" sets the mood for the rest of Cassadaga. (Even though Babylon is best known as the biblical city of sin, when you're from a town with the same name lines like "the whore of Babylon" as on "Four Winds" just always sounds strange.) "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" takes the appeal of "Four Winds" to another level. If "Four Winds" is a great song then "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" is simply amazing. To a slow build of piano and guitars, Oberst belts out lines like "all your friends and sedatives mean well but make it worse" before the song soars off to a grander expanse. Oberst, Mogis, Walcott, and Boesel keep time on the verse before the whole thing becomes magical on the chorus, and there you are, you've wetted yourself. In most other contexts the follower "Hot Knives" would stand out as brilliant, but with the misfortune of following "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" it withers. And this is even more prominent since "Hot Knives" is going to be released as a single along with "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" on July 9th. Following up on "Hot Knives" is the whimsical 50s pop of "Make a Plan to Love Me," where a set of female backup singers add bops and refrains. "Soul Singer in a Session Band" takes awhile to warm up on you where Oberst, Ward, and Weiss get sloppy over artistic futility. Some point to Winona Ryder being the subject of "Classic Cars," but whether that's the case or not it is relatively irrelevant, because "Classic Cars" is one of the standout tracks on an album full of gems; a song that takes music to another level on the back of Walcott's piano and melody on the chorus. What goes up must come down, but Oberst gentle lands us on the folksy rambling "Middleman," before the watery effects and excellent self-evident lyrical content of "Cleanse Song." Instrumental intensity is drastically dialed down on "No One Would Riot for Less" in order for Oberst to channel intensity through his voice. "Coat Check Dream Song" certainly has a dreamy feel to it and comes off more like a song from other Saddle Creek artists like Taylor or LeMaster – in fact, Walcott co-wrote the song with Oberst. Of note, "Coat Check Dream Song" features a smidgen of Middle Eastern flair thanks to vocals from Hassan Lemtouni. After this dreamy affair comes the spellbinding country-western genius of "I Must Belong Somewhere." With guitar strings bending everywhere, Oberst places everything in its place including wishing he could just stay where he is. Cassadaga closes on the rootsy, haunting "Lime Tree" – a solid ending though "I Must Belong Somewhere" would have added an exclamation point to the album.

With Cassadaga Conor Oberst simply reaffirms that he is one of the best American lyricists in a generation and has the musical vessel of Bright Eyes to prove it. The only thing stopping Oberst now is himself.
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