Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Bill Cummings 28/04/2009
What ever happened to Conor Oberst? A infinitely prolific artist he began releasing startling records at the tender age of just 15 and went on to become the iconoclastic poster boy for introspective singer songwriters everywhere. Releasing albums under the moniker Bright Eyes working with multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis and a rotating line up, he pitched camp somewhere between the urgent streams of consciousness of Dylan and the bittersweetness of the late great Elliot Smith, but really never sounded that much like either of them. Essential Bright eyes albums Letting Off the Happiness, Fevers and Mirrors, and Lifted…. rattled with frustration, paranoia and melancholia of modern living, incendiary poetic words tumbling from
his mouth burning twisting wreaths of fire. For me he reached his high water mark in 2005 with the release of two vastly different albums - I'm Wide Awake was a perfectly pitched patchwork of personal and political imagery, blurring the lines between alt country/folk/indie, delivered with equal amounts of conviction and shivering tenderness, while Digtital Ash from the same year, showed off his more experimental electro inventions.
His second outing as a solo artist (he dropped the Bright Eyes tag after 2007's Cassadaga), Outer South was recorded in the burning heat of El Paso, Texas. It continues the worrying journey that has seen Conor Oberst treading the boards toward the middle of the road, if it really began on Cassadaga, and was carried on in last year's rather patchy solo debut. It's fully confirmed by this latest set of rather underwhelming alt country songs delivered with the fun time formulaic strumming of a collection of Ryan Adams B-sides, and that's not to say they're terrible, it's just that taken as a whole they sound lazy, and unchallenging - each one produced with a certain sheen and overly professional, commercial execution that strangles most of the passion from any of Oberst's inventiveness.
One can only draw the conclusion that Oberst has let the album's theme overwhelm any of his more interesting sojourns. Because Outer South is pervaded by Oberst's delusion that he's formed a 'proper band' and not simply another all-star backing band whose contributions are overshadowed by his creative wandering. And sometimes they take centre stage. So, although Conor Oberst's name is written in large print over my promo copy of the record(but apparently not over the release artwork proper), in an attempt to be more inclusive with his creative output, four songs feature credits and or lead vocals by his fellow band members Jason Boesel, Nik Freitas, and Taylor Hollingsworth, which almost makes you feel like making a call to report this album under trade descriptions act. They are probably three songs too many - only Jason Boesel's fine version of Eagle On a Pole (the track also appeared on Oberst's debut solo album last year) with its laconic delivery and Wilco-lite rhythms, seems worthwhile.
At 16 tracks long the whole set seems overlong and largely pedestrian too. Oberst and chums may be having fun playing these songs, but for the most part it makes for unremarkable listening, I was glancing toward the skip button before the end of the third track. Most of them are so surprisingly forgettable: from the underwhelming summertime sway of opener Slow (Oh So Slowly) to the terribly clumsy rhyming of Cabbage Town. There's even a worrying nod to lesser John Lennon solo moments on the rather plodding melody of Bloodline.
While Roosevelt Room sounds suspiciously like some kind of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Neil Young pastiche, gin soaked vocals are delivered like political remonstrations (which briefly echo the Bush baiting 'When the President talks to God') being driven like a train across desert rocks, it's a little forced, musically sounding a little too much like a 70s Californian homage. With substandard efforts like this, and with an album a year in recent times you have to wonder whether Oberst is actually producing too much music? Maybe he should leave it a while before he emerges again; quantity has never been a trade off for quality.
It's all so frustrating because there are occasional flickers from the camp fire of the Mystic Valley Band, the beautiful stark intimacy of White Shoes is solemn and tender, it's ironically everything the best downbeat moments of Bright Eyes offerings is: stark, with multi-layered imagery, delivered to a loved one in the dead of night. The riding tune Spoiled tumbles pleasantly with Hammond organs, twirling banjo arpeggios. Like the best alt country songs its bitter lyrics are buried like tumble weed in an effervescent melody ('Every time I fucked her mind/It's coz I thought I was in love').
Conor Oberst is an undoubted talent, for parts of the 00s his work was on the verge of era defining, but this mostly limp, formulaic, unremarkable set of songs rather adds weight to the idea that at 29 he's in severe danger of being an artist who will be defined solely by the vital material he wrote in his fledgling years of Bright Eyes rather than anything he produces under his own name, which would be a shame.
Release date: 04/05/09