Review Summary: Bright Eyes returns with a full lineup rather than a solo project, and it sees better songwriting and Conor improving his singing quality.
2006 was a year of change and growth for Conor Oberst, and he didn’t release any new albums. Instead, he toured extensively and made a sort of indie-country trio with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and M. Ward. He played free concerts, got namedropped in an episode of Saturday Night Live, and kept his fans happy with a B-sides and rarities compilation entitled Noise Floor. By the end of the year, he settled down to record for his new releases, Cassadega and Four Winds EP. These releases are the first from the band
Bright Eyes; he called in Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott to be permanent members of the band. Four Winds hints towards being more of a B-sides collection from the Cassadega recordings from the way Saddle Creek and Oberst advertised it, featuring Four Winds, which will also appear on the Cassadega full length.. But it gives a preview as to how Oberst changed over the last year, playing as much as possible and growing as a musician both in songwriting and singing.
Those two qualities of the EP are most obvious on first listen. No longer is the listener left to focus on Oberst’s great storytelling and just ignore his voice, both are fantastic and great qualities about his music. He decided to take after his friend M. Ward, who shares a duet with Oberst on Smoke Without Fire
. Oberst’s voice reaches into Ward’s baritone range and puts his own Nebraskan accent into it. Their voices are distinctive and different from each other, but the similarities are obvious. Smoke Without Fire
, which serves as a sort of ballad in the middle of the EP, would fit perfectly on an M. Ward album. The empty, sparse arrangement with low, simple guitar lines sing directly out of the Ward songbook, and Oberst sounds more like Ward here than anywhere else. He darkens the tone of his voice, almost matching it, and one must really pay attention to notice when Ward takes over for his own verse and chorus in the song.
The rest of the Four Winds EP is distinctly Oberst’s songwriting. His country influence seems to have taken a strong position as a cornerstone for all his music nowadays, and Four Winds
showcases that immediately with some of the most melodic material Oberst has ever written. Immediately, an extremely catchy folk fiddle melody overtakes the groove laid out by the drums, guitar, and bass. Conor finds himself fitting in extremely well as his vocals come in after what could be considered a fiddle solo. The song is energetic and relatively uptempo, with great dynamic contrast and fantastic lyrics that hint towards the end of civilization. He may quote his journey recording the album with the line “On the way to Cassadega to commune with the dead, they said ‘you better look alive.’” With that, Oberst hints at his livelier, more melodic writing style. For Conor, this is a musical evolution and definitely a great direction for him to follow.
Still, some things have not changed with Conor. His lyrics and messages are still one of the main focuses in his music, either commentary on society or politics, but he ties in personal references and little hints towards relationships and love. Stray Dog Freedom
shows his brilliant ability to extend a metaphor about a stray dog that he fed. However, the dog ran away after they tried to name him, or label him, because that would sacrifice his freedom. The song then progresses into a different idea that takes a more personal perspective about person to person relationships. What makes the lyrics so great is the way Oberst simplifies things for the listener and makes it easy to understand while still having profound messages. Musically, the album shows a more prominent electric guitar tone that hides in the other songs on the EP but makes its biggest appearance here. The next song, Cartoon Blues
, is much more complex both lyrically and musically. Many different instruments make an appearance on the song, from banjos to pianos and guitars. His word choice is much more upscale, with words like “plagiary” and “late-night latrine.” He makes a reference to an interview where someone asked him where he came up with the song Padraic, My Prince
from his first album, “the one where the baby dies”. Cartoon Blues
digresses in many different topics, but it is passionate and very musical, two things Oberst has finally learned how to combine.
If Four Winds is any intimation as to how good Cassadega will be, Cassadega will undoubtedly be Bright Eyes’ best album to date. Still, it is not perfect. Tourist Trap
is completely boring, taken at a terribly slow tempo with very little going on to make the song interesting. Reinvent the Wheel is sort of just another song, forgettable in comparison to the others. Conor takes his songwriting to a new level, which may be due to the addition of his permanent band members who probably had a larger hand in songwriting. His singing quality is much better, and he holds a tune relatively well. The country influence has made a lasting effect on Conor, and for now, he plans on being the radical left-wing cowboy with the hair that covers one eye, a contradiction of styles but absolutely perfect for Conor’s style and personality.
Smoke Without Fire
Stray Dog Freedom