Conor Oberst and company return with a dark and entertaining set of alt-country tinged indie rock…
It doesn’t take much to make me happy, really. Just gimme a guitar, a song and some honest reflection and I’ll buy your albums from now until the end of time. That said, I’m coming to the game a little late for Bright Eyes, one of the more recognized indie bands at the moment, who have more than my favorite ingredients thanks to frontman Conor Oberst. You could say I was more or less uninformed on the band’s work up until this new release. Still, I’m looking forward to opening the box on this group. What will we find inside?
Bright Eyes is an Omaha, Nebraska-based indie rock band that formed in the late 90’s and features the work of singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. At the young age of 15, Oberst was already watching his first band, Commander Venus, dissolving. Luckily, Oberst had been busy working on his own during the band’s final days. When he founded Bright Eyes, he had an untapped catalog of over 70 songs.
The first Bright Eyes album, the bluntly titled A Collection Of Songs Written & Recorded 1995-1997, was released on the CV-founded Saddle Creek Records in early 1998 and featured only Oberst on all instruments. The loose set of demos featured everything from acoustic balladry to experimental electronica. Despite the genre-wandering, critics praised the rough talent that Oberst displayed. By the end of the year, the ever prolific Oberst had released Bright Eyes’ second album, Letting Off The Happiness, a much more focused collection of songs which featured several notable indie rock musicians, including members of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal. The album boosted Bright Eyes’ visibility on the music scene, garnering heaps of praise from critics and genre fans alike. It was also the beginning of the band’s revolving door membership, an aspect that the band sticks to today which makes for a constantly evolving sound.
In 2000, Bright Eyes’ released their third and best received album, Fevers & Mirrors. The set was a gorgeous amalgamation of pop and rock with a reflective (mostly sad) mood. Indie kids rejoiced. 2002’s follow-up, Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground was similarly well-received, however, it was now the nation’s turn to take notice. Lifted catapulted Bright Eyes into the public conscience, garnering praise from major publications. They were being hailed as the best “new” band of the year, a milestone for Oberst, the band and Saddle Creek Records alike.
The years following was a whirlwind of activity for both Oberst and the band. Several Bright Eyes E.P.s saw release, as well as material by one of Oberst’s side projects, emo act Desaparecidos. In 2004, the band became active in the Presidential race, performing on the MoveOn.org shows with heavy hitters Brice Springsteen, Neil Young and others.
In 2005, Bright Eyes released their fifth and sixth albums on the same day. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a folksy roots-rock record and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, the band’s first totally electronic CD. Both were well received, with Wide Awake appearing on many year-end lists.
After laying low for most of 2006 (which Oberst spent writing songs), Bright Eyes returned with the EP Four Winds in March of 2007. The album served as a preview for their upcoming seventh record.
On April 10, 2007, Saddle Creek Records released Cassadaga, the seventh album by Bright Eyes and the follow-up to 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. The album is available on both CD and vinyl. Bonus tracks include “Endless Entertainment”, which is available for download on the band’s website , and “Susan Miller Rag”, which is included on a 3” disc or 7” LP with orders of Cassadaga from Saddle Creek’s website.
The Band: 8.0
Conor Oberst: voice, guitar, synthesizer, piano
Mike Mogis: bass, glockenspiel, pedal steel, vibraphone, mandolin, 12-string, baritone, lap steel, percussion, dobro, ukelele, voice
Nate Walcott: organ, piano, electric piano, trumpet
M. Ward: guitar
Janet Weiss: drums
Rachael Yamagata: voice
Jason Boesel: drums, voice
Maria Taylor: voice, drums
Andy LeMaster: voice
David Rawlings: guitar
Gillian Welch: voice
John McIntire: percussion, electronics
First off, my apologies if I missed any “official” Bright Eyes members on this list. The personnel list for this album is lengthy, to say the least. As always, the main attraction in Oberst’s vocals. And he delivers, as usual. His aching, heartfelt delivery is raw to the bone. For good or bad, you believe every word he says on this album.
But Bright Eyes is no one-trick pony. The real star here is the arrangements. It’s the quiet return of alt-country, neatly packaged in an electronica bow. Mike Mogis, one of Bright Eyes’ more stable members, is to thank for that. The pedal steel, vibraphone, dobro… they all create a lonely, lost highway backdrop for Oberst’s work and it fits it to a tee. Keys man Nate Walcott counterbalances this, keeping things from going too country with his decidedly lo-fi, indie piano stylings and his big horn and strings arrangements. It’s the work of masters.
There are some beautiful harmonies on this record, too. The rotating cast lends some truly inspired moments, with notables like Gillian Welch and the DuPree sisters showing up for album-defining moments. Like most Bright Eyes albums, this one is full of sad moments, but the material is a bit lighter than usual, and the fun that is had by this group of friends and professionals is palpable.
The Songs: 8.0
1. Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed)
2. Four Winds
3. If The Brakeman Turns My Way
4. Hot Knives
5. Make A Plan To Love Me
6. Soul Singer In A Session Band
7. Classic Cars
8. Middle Man
9. Cleanse Song
10. No One Would Riot For Less
11. Coat Check Dream Song
12. I Must Belong Somewhere
Cassadaga is going to bring Bright Eyes a lot of fans and a lot of critical praise. It is definitely more fleshed out than the group’s previous efforts, as you can tell by my discussion of the sound. And for the doubters who felt Conor Oberst didn’t quite measure up to the Dylan-esque praise heaped upon him for his previous songs, Cassadaga just may sway them.
While previous Bright Eyes albums have found success as Oberst wallows in his own questions and insecurity, there’s an external pressure here, an album whose lyrics are more defined by a dark but hip journey and the acceptance that the destination is unknown in both distance and demeanor. Even the naming of the album, Cassadaga is a gypsy town in Florida, is appropriate here, as you can imagine a trip through that unknown culture and collection of miscreants, and what can be learned and what must be avoided. The music is an almalgamation of cultures, from back porch Willie Nelson folk to pub sing-a-longs to a telephone booth conversation. It’s all here, all aching and ready to be discovered by another traveler eager to begin their passage.
To be less riddling, Cassadaga is more about the story, with the feeling secondary. There are lighter songs here, like the rollicking “Hot Knives” (“I’ve made love/I’ve been fucked/So what?”), and there’s your typical moody affairs (the somber “No One Would Riot For Less”). And, despite a few boring moments (mostly the more experimental electronica stuff, which feels a little out of place here), it’s a perfect package that lived up to expectations.
The 411: Cassadaga is bound to please fans of Bright Eyes and make new fans as well. The songs are the fullest sounding the band has ever produced, with nice arrangements, tons of instrumental fills and an alt-country tinge that has been missing on the indie-rock scene since Ryan Adams went…wherever the hell he went. With a decidedly less depressing mood than usual, there are some great songs (“Hot Knives”, “No One Would Riot”, “Middle Man”, etc), and barely a dull moment on the album. If you enjoy singer/songwriter driven music, indie or otherwise, you’d be doing yourself a disservice NOT listening to this CD.