Review Summary: Conor Oberst and co. explore dance music on the weaker of his two 2005 releases.
Roughly one year before every girl in my school decided to buy a bunch of his albums, Bright Eyes, the main project of Conor Oberst (the surprisingly young, though not as young as you would have thought by the way Rolling Stone or some other *** magazine described him to be) released two CD’s at the same time. The way they were set up (one was to be near entirely Folk oriented while the other Electronica based) it would appear to split up the sound of Oberst’s previous albums (melancholy and slow vs. melancholy and danceable.) A cool idea, to say nothing of the talent this might call for. The ‘boy wonder’, as they called him, released both records to rave reviews, with many hailing I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (the folksy one) as one of the albums of the year. Digital Ash in A Digital Urn (the electro one) was not hated ‘round the board, but like a little brother at a College graduation, it kind of got pushed aside as critics lined up to fellate Oberst for the Dylan-esque songwriting talents the former showcased.
But like I said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Digital Ash. It’s a really interesting, and fairly original record.
So I’ll begin this review with the song that prompted hundreds of young girls around the world to make a little extra room in the hearts (and a lot in their parent’s wallets) for Bright Eyes: Easy/Lucky/Free. It was a minor cable television hit, and for good reason too. Lucky is possibly the best song of the album, and easily top 3 off of the two releases put together. Musically, the band, or not really band per say, more collective (as up until recently, Oberst was the only permanent member of Bright Eyes) is tight, introspective and coldly moving. Melancholy was the word I used to describe the group’s songs previously in this review, and you’d be hard pressed to find to a better word to describe Easy/Lucky/Free. Rhythmic drumming, burbling samples and thick electronic bass mesh under a meandering, delayed guitar line and Conor’s powerful vocals to form the song’s impressively tense backbone. And as lame as it is to say, Conor really does have a certain power vocally, lyrically too. “I never really dreamed of heaven much/Until we put him in the ground/But it's all I'm doing now/Listening for patterns in the sound/Of an endless static sea” he muses, before the song rolls into a chorus, with Conor remaining in ‘deadpan vocals mode’ (which he keeps going until the song’s pulsating verses drops into a second chorus and even he can’t keep his voice from straining under the emotional weight.) It truly is a powerful song, a great choice for a single too.
It’s not the only good song on the CD either. The way Conor’s vocals contrast during the chorus of the brilliant drums ‘n keyboards based Gold Mined Gutted is truly a spectacle to behold. With one Oberst singing in a strained near Tim Kinsella-esque fashion and the other remaining as a constant ‘deadpan’, it makes for a cool effect, and the way Nick Zinner (yeah, that’s the guy from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) threads electric guitar through the Oberst-on-Oberst rule-fest is equally impressive, leaving the mood triumphant as the chorus fades into a skittering mash of electronic drums and organ tones. Other highlights include the lurching tempo and lingering emotion of Devil in the Details (which is pretty great up until that wimpy guitar solo) and the mega fun syncopations of Take It Easy (Love Nothing).
On Down in a Rabbit Hole, Oberst and gang explore spacey electronica, trip-hop and Nintendo sounds, with impressive results. The song’s atmosphere is top notch, complete with a feedback-laden guitar freak out, lovingly glitched production and heavily cinematic string work. Conor’s neurotic lyricism matches nicely with the song’s depressing feel and contrasts perfectly with that of the following number (the aforementioned Take It Easy.) The album’s not all gold though (as evidenced by the disappointing span of average tracks during the middle section of the record.) but overall, it’s hard to find too much fault in Bright Eyes’ work here (especially when considered how much heart and soul he must have poured into the album’s superior brother). Some may have questioned Oberst’s motives here, but a few listens and surely they will be convinced.