Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Conor Oberst's "Outer South" Not So Good

By Evan Rytlewski
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If Conor Oberst must dedicate himself to a band that isn't Bright Eyes, couldn't he at least reunite Desaparecidos? This Mystic Valley Band that he's spent the last couple years with just isn't cutting it, yet Oberst doesn't seem to be getting the message, since he's doubled down on the project with his upcoming album, Outer South.

This time Oberst leased out valuable album real estate to his Mystic Valley Band-mates Nik Fritas, Taylor Hollingsworth and Jason Boesel, who each wrote and sang a couple tracks a piece—a kind gesture, but a misguided one, given that none of the trio are memorable songwriters. Of all the complaints leveled at Oberst's last album—too tepid, too static, too James Taylor-ish—too much Oberst wasn't one of them. How does having the drummer from Rilo Kiley fill in for a couple songs fix anything?

At least the tracks that Oberst didn't outsource are much improved from the last record. The philosophical platitudes of last year's self-titled album have been replaced with Oberst's incendiary, Christian-baiting wit, and similarly the music itself has a little more fight to it, too. But there will always be a ceiling on Oberst's songs so long as he sticks with the Mystic Valley Band's standard-issue country-rock. Tellingly, the album's best song, "White Shoes," does away with the backing band altogether. A refreshing return to the quivering, over-reverbed intimacy of vintage Bright Eyes, it's sadly out of place on a record filled with boilerplate twang.

Does somebody need to sit Oberst down and give him the "difference between an album and a collection of songs" lecture? Maybe Tim Kasher could volunteer. Another Saddle Creek alum that's stumbled over the past half decade, Kasher just released with Cursive a fantastic disc that works as an album. Mama, I'm Swollen is rich with reoccurring lyrical themes and musical motifs and, most importantly, driven by a real sense of purpose. Oberst's Outer South, though, is just a collection of songs, and not a particularly good one, either.

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