Artist: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
Label: Merge Records
Due Out: May 5th
Not even one year removed from 2008's critically-acclaimed self-titled record, Conor Oberst is back in action with the Mystic Valley Band for another go-around. This time giving the band equal billing to the man of Bright Eyes fame, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band continue down their old country road, attempting to redefine the direction of Conor as an artist on Outer South. For those who long to remember Oberst as the sad musical-genius making inventive and edgy music, I regretfully inform you that those days have seemingly come to pass, as has portions of the man's youth. However, I will enlighten you to something I read about Bob Dylan, the man to whom so many have always likened Oberst, by Douglas Wolk on Pitchfork yesterday. "The ultimate test of a Dylan album though is to try to consider it outside the imposing text of his career." Keep that in mind as you evaluate Conor Oberst, as I did, and you will probably come out with a different result.
The bright and western feel that hits you right off the bat in "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)" tells you right off the bat that you're in for a much different experience on Outer South than you may be accustomed to otherwise with Oberst, including last year's album. The country twang that has become prevalent on his past two records (Conor Oberst and Cassadaga) never shies away on this energetic take-it-or-leave-it intro that harkens to parts of M. Ward's Hold Time. "To All the Lights in the Windows" continues the mood, as we see a much different individual than the one we've known before this. The indie edge is dead and gone, as is most of the sorrow, and it's replaced by something undeniably alt-country. And then suddenly, you're confused. As "Big Black Nothing" starts, you're caught off-guard the first time listening. Conor's voice is gone, and in its place is guitarist Nik Freitas. If it weren't for the goofy country gang-vocals, I'd be a fan here, but I'm easily turned off by hokey stuff, so unfortunately, Nik's moment in the limelight gets bad marks.
Unfortunately, it gets no better on on "Air Mattres," as fellow bandmate Taylor Hollingsworth throws in his own track, complete with doo-woppy vocals. If Conor had sung hear, maybe I'd like it, but I just can't bring myself to enjoy the overly-whiny vocals Hollingsworth provides on this (thankfully) two-minute track. Lucky for us, "Cabbage Town" provides some sort of respite, and a possible return to the mood we so enjoyed on last year's album. Here, Oberst seems a bit playful, and enjoying himself, but at the same time, very focused and direct on the criticisms and commentary he lays out. "Ten Women" then switches gears, slowing it down with some introspection, and thoughts on love. Before long though, the reigns are passed again, this time to Jason Boesel, who out-croons his other bandmates on "Difference Is Time". Though Conor's voice works for country, I think it's apparent that Boesel, out of all of the vocalists that appear here, has the voice best suited for the genre. Follow that up with another fun song, the copyright issue-avoiding, and eerily Dylan-esque "Nikorette" (featured here a couple weeks back), and you've gotten about halfway through the lengthy, 16-track album.
"White Shoes" begins the second portion of the record as something we'd expect from Conor- random picking mixed with background noise to create a distant aesthetic. It's a vision he maintains throughout, as you get the sense he's either singing to you from down a hallway or a rooftop, with the echo effect he employs. Not to lull you into a sense of security though, the upbeat "Bloodline," sung by Freitas, jumps right in with a much better showing than his earlier effort. Still, can't help but feel like the Conor vs. non-Conor tracks feel a bit too disjointed to work on one album. Keeping the tempo up, "Spoiled" reintroduces the man who receives top billing on the record, gives us a song about exactly what the title implies- someone being spoiled. Though Oberst doesn't sing on the next song, "Worldwide" (bandmate Macey Taylor does) he did write it, and to me, it seems obvious on this pleasant and drifting track. Before we hit the homestretch, we see one last self-test for the band, as the uncharacteristic, yet highly entertaining, "Roosevelt Room" gives us Conor's old angst, mixed with some heavier rock and an organ solo or two. This one is almost undoubtedly about our last President George W. Bush, as well as problems with our government in general, and as those familiar with Oberst know, this is when he's at the top of his game.
Recycling the beginning of "Eagle on a Pole" from last year's album, this rendition of "Eagle on a Pole" is longer, and sung by Boesel. For all the issues I may have with the different vocalists, I find Boesel's work to be great, and this song would be included in that conversation, as he utilizes his voice effectively, as well as background vocals where appropriate. "I Got the Reason #2," the album's longest track, and Conor's last vocal appearance, provides an over-seven minute reflection as to where the record's been and maybe, where it's headed too. And then there's "Snake Hill". I hate to really hammer someone for a performance, but having Hollingsworth sing on the last track was a terrible idea, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the record.
I'm going to try not to be overly-critical here, as I don't enjoy writing reviews for things I don't like. The similarities with Dylan have gone from subtle to overt and glaring, with inflections matching perfectly and musical direction adjusting itself accordingly (not necessarily horrible). To me, this is not a Conor Oberst record, or at least not a record by the artist I had grown to appreciate so much over the past decade. It's not even completely his fault. I had no problem with Conor's tracks, as well as Boesel's. It was everyone else's I couldn't stand. However, the fact that I have not necessarily enjoyed two of Oberst's last three releases does speak some volumes. I'll leave it at that. Keep my advice from earlier in mind, as you listen, and as you see the grade I'm giving this. If I were grading it as an Oberst record, it would be much lower. Similarities here include the aforementioned M. Ward, Bob Dylan, and Wilco's earlier work.
Best Track: "Cabbage Town"