Reviews

Oh Holy Fools

Author: Isaac Josepson
03/02/2001 | Noise Pop Guide | Live Show Preview
When Mark Eitzel made his recording debut in 1986, then five-year-old Conor Oberst was pestering his older brother to let him watch 120 Minutes with "the big kids."

But age makes no difference where talent is concerned, and fifteen years later, both Oberst and Eitzel can look back on prolific songwriting careers as they share the stage at this year's Noise Pop Festival. For Oberst a.k.a. "Bright Eyes," the Festival and subsequent West Coast tour is marginally about promoting his recently-released fourth LP Oh Holy Fools and more about the chance to play with the former American Music Club frontman.

"We weren't really even considering doing any shows out here," remembers Oberst. "But when the idea of playing with Mark Eitzel came up, it seemed like a can't-miss opportunity. He's someone I've known about since I was knee high, and I really admire his songwriting. It's subtle, but very powerful and very personal."

Fans and journalists have used similar adjectives to describe Bright Eyes' style - especially on last year's Fevers and Mirrors, a cohesive, beautifully-orchestrated and alarmingly intelligent collection of songs that give voice to that volatile period in life after you realize that you're all alone, but before it hits you that everyone else is, too.

It was Fevers and Mirrors that definitively thrust Bright Eyes out of the relative quiet of Omaha, NE and isolated groups of music fans "in the know," and into the spotlight of the independent rock community at large. The press cried comparisons to Elliott Smith and other patron saints of empathy, and Oberst found himself playing to larger, tear-stained audiences in more distant places - including a recent tour of Japan.

"All of this touring has opened me up to a lot of new things, which should make me a better songwriter" says Oberst, "but it's also made me realize that everywhere is pretty much the same, and I have the experiences I need here in Omaha."

In fact, the young songwriter acknowledges that the cacophony of attention and rush of exposure might have made him a little too self-aware. It's something that Oberst worries will hurt his songwriting.

"The more people talked about who I was and what I was about, the more I found myself trying to craft what I was doing. And the more knowledge you bring to it, the farther you get away from the purity of the songs."

Oh Holy Fools is - in part -- an answer to that issue. Bright Eyes splits the record with fellow Nebraskians Son, Ambulance, both exposing listeners to an incredible new and rich, almost chamber pop sound and taking some heat off the fire that the cult of Conor Oberst has become.

Bright Eyes' four songs on the record are more musically understated than those on Fevers and Mirrors. Lyrically, Oberst addresses his grudging hyper-awareness in "Going For the Gold," where he sings of a coffeehouse in which singers convene to "detail their pain in some standard refrain," and "recite their sadness like it's some kind of contest." It's an almost Morrissey-esque couplet of caustic self-deprecation of his self-deprecation - one that Oberst completes nicely, crooning, "Well if it is [a contest], I think I'm winning it... the champion of idiots."

Some of Oberst's repertoire might be understated and wry, but anyone who caught Bright Eyes' last San Francisco show at Bottom of the Hill knows that his shows - much like Mark Eitzel's -- are charged with dead-honest emotional peaks and valleys, captivating audiences from start to finish. It's a catharsis that leaves listeners breathless, and brings Oberst out of his chair on stage, night after night.

Like any other touring artist, Oberst occasionally finds it hard to maintain that level of intensity, especially - as he says, "when I look out into the audience and am suddenly embarrassed that people are just seeing one side of me ('Okay, Conor, it's nine o'clock. Time to be depressed.'), and they're thinking that's all I am."

But the young songwriter doesn't think he'll have that problem at Noise Pop.

"I'm completely excited about Noise Pop, and I love the Great American Music Hall. The Festival's the only reason we're coming out there," he reiterates. "That and the burritos. San Francisco has great burritos."
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