Friday, May 8, 2009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

Rating: 6.0
Released: May 5, 2009

Let's just say we're going to take this Dylan comparison seriously.

If so, 29-year-old Conor Oberst is in Dylan's late 60s, early 70s John Wesley Harding and New Morning period.

Perhaps tired of being asked to sit in as the voice of a generation, he just wants to wear matching jackets with his drinking buddies (it's like the Pink Ladies in Grease 2!), drive a motorcycle, wear Top Gun aviator glasses (woot homoerotic beach volleyball!), drive to Nogales and indulge his classic rock bone.

Like Dylan, he's going to take his knocks for not making the album everyone wants to hear. For Dylan, it was Highway 61 Revisited or Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. For Oberst, it's his landmark 2005 folk opus I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

But if you like your artists subversive and willful, it goes with the territory. So hush up! Outer South isn't that bad.

It isn't that good either.

You can't talk about what this album is without saying what it isn't. It's not a Bright Eyes album or even a Conor Oberst solo record, like last year's even-keeled, self-titled travelogue. It's more like a jam around a campfire. With electric guitars.

Oberst writes 10 of the 16 tracks here, ceding some songwriting and vocal duties to bandmates Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth and Jason Boesel.

The non-Obersts are pleasant. They're not the least talented guys in the room, but The Band they ain't.

Their amicable folk and power-pop numbers pass by without making a fuss, which is to say they're forgettable.

No surprise, the strongest songs here belong to Oberst. The good news is if you trim those six Mystic Valley tunes, you still have an album's worth of new Oberst.

"To All The Lights in the Windows" sounds like Wilbury-era Tom Petty, and "I Got The Reason" is patient folk rock with some Crazy Horse spice for good measure. It knows where it's going so there's no need to rush.

Meantime, "White Shoes" and "Roosevelt Room" is as close as you're going to get to old Bright Eyes material. "Just tell me what you want to do/anything you want to do," Oberst sings over spare acoustic guitar in the former.

It's a haunting reminder of just how good a songwriter Oberst can be. His strength has always been his lyrics, which have grown increasingly cryptic.

In "Roosevelt Room," he's still raging against the political establishment.

"You want me to pay my taxes/ So you can propagate your lies/While there's barefoot dudes down in New Orleans
Looking like they're gonna die," he sings.

Somebody go find Bush, it's time to stick it to him again.

Others like "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)" and "Nikorette" are regrettably generic songs, especially from an artist whose blunt histrionics and trembling baritone made him one of the most distinct singer-songwriters in the whole pack.

Chances are this material breathes well on the road; much of it sounds like it was recorded there anyway.

In the end, that's one of the biggest differences between Dylan and Oberst, at least for now.

In the early 1970s, Dylan found happiness living a remote, homely life with his love. Oberst seems to have found his love too, and it's the road.

- SoR

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