Release Date: May 5, 2009
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Oberst stops whining, grows up, learns to have a little fun Outer South, Oberst's second project with the Mystic Valley Band, marks a lighthearted shift in the prodigy's oeuvre. The blues and bluegrass-infused album sets him apart from his previous image, transforming him from the kid you try to talk off the ledge to the guy you want to have a beer with. .
Conor Oberst's Mystic Valley Band initially seemed a bit like a busman's holiday, a way for him to throw off whatever expectations he had as Bright Eyes, a way to get a bit loose and rowdy. The Mystic Valley Band is turning into something more -- not quite a full-fledged multi-headed beast the way the Byrds were at their peak, but not Dylan pushing through the Rolling Thunder Revue as its undisputed leader, either. The Mystic River Band turns out to be a bit of an oddity: a group with a clear-cut leader that manages to seem egalitarian, particularly here on Outer South where Oberst recedes from the spotlight on a whopping six of the 16 tracks, letting his bandmates sing their own songs.
So, listen up and here’s the sketch: Bright Eyes is dead, long live The Mystic Valley Band. I mean, no announcement has been made or anything. But that’s the way it would seem. For now, at least. And frankly, it doesn’t actually matter, does it? Really? It’s still Conor Oberst and that’s ….
The days when musicians would release several albums a year are mostly over – just not as far as Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, is concerned. Only months after his solo album, he returns with the Mystic Valley Band for more sacrilegious alt-country and the odd acoustic ballad. The band's contributions are low points on this 16-track epic, but Oberst proves as iconoclastic as ever.
"There's a lot of things I've got left to do," sings Conor Oberst on Slowly (Oh So Slowly), explaining his prolific output. Only months after his self-titled album with the Mystic Valley Band, the sometime Bright Eyes mainman here adds more notches to his musical bedpost, ranging from his trademark sacrilegious alt.country to the curiously Razorlighty Spoiled. More bafflingly, he's now giving the rest of the band a turn at the reins, allowing bassist Macey Taylor to sing the Oberst-penned Worldwide and Taylor Hollingsworth to craft the ordinary Dylan pastiche of Air Mattress.
Back when he still traded under the Bright Eyes name, Conor Oberst was a schizophrenic songwriter, hopping from folk to electro-pop to indie rock with a cheerful disdain for genre lines. Even so, his records rarely wanted for cohesiveness. In those days, Oberst’s distinctive songwriting was the unifying factor, tying together musically disparate threads through recurring themes, common devices and persistent concerns.
In the opening track Slowly (Oh So Slowly) from his latest release Outer South, Oberst sings “potential you’re a loaded line” presenting a sentiment to which the singer-songwriter must be all too familiar with. Ever since Oberst had this songwriter of a generation tag placed upon his skinny, white shoulders, he has been lauded as having the potential to be this and that, most notably aligned to another singer who was pretty well known within the sixties folk scene. But in his latest releases, most notably 2007’s Cassadaga and last year’s self-titled release, it sounds like Oberst is coming to terms with his fame and is not, if he ever was, burdened by the weight of such expectations.
Of all the good and not-so-good qualities you can ascribe to Conor Oberst, "ensemble player" isn't one of them. It's not just that his work as Bright Eyes has essentially always been a solo vision, but that he felt the need to name it "Bright Eyes" in the first place, using a collective nom de plume, in the process adding an extra level of presumptive self-sustaining wholeness. More to the point, there's Oberst's artistic persona itself-- his aggrieved yelp, his poetic bloodletting, his political hectoring, and his perpetual navel gaze, which have combined to attract admirers and detractors with equal fervency.
Review Summary: I wish it were still 2003 so Conor Oberst didn't suck.In the eyes of his die-hard fans, Conor Oberst can do no wrong, and this annoys the crap out of me. Seriously, amongst the wealth of material that he's released as Bright Eyes, only four albums are any good, and of his other projects, only his 2008 self-titled album stands out. Simply put, he's good, but he isn't the god that some would proclaim him to be.
Conor Oberst's generous, occasionally uneven, musical output doesn't lend itself to easy categorization. Anything from stripped-down heart-on-sleeve folk to electronic seems to be fair game. But in terms of raw, swelling emotion, you certainly know his songs when you hear them. That's his strongest suit, but you wouldn't know it from his latest non-Bright Eyes project.
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