REVIEW: Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band – “Outer South”

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It’s tough to watch music you love slip into mediocrity. It’s also tough to see Oberst’s current projects with the Mystic Valley Band as anything but.

I listened to this album once, and I can’t really say I have any real desire to listen to much of it again. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. I just didn’t care. On Oberst’s new release with The Mystic Valley Band you get what you’d expect –what Oberst’s recent works slowly, oh so slowly hinted at as time went on. We watched as the claustrophobic “Fevers and Mirrors” morphed into the shimmering and folky “Lifted: The Story is in The Soil, Keep Your Ear to The Ground.” Then came the double release of “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” a country-folk crystallization of the zeitgeist of New York at the birth of the Iraq War and “Digital Ash in A Digital Urn” the dynamic, though ultimately less satisfying electro-pop meditations. It seemed that Oberst’s interests were becoming more distinct and focused, his intuition more keen, and his songwriting more natural. He didn’t seem afraid, at last, to simply let the songs speak for themselves and let concepts bloom forth for the listener to appreciate –the unforced flowers of heartfelt songwriting and the artistic maturity to “let go.” We were watching the young man from Omaha, who so many hyperbolically compared to Dylan, at the outset of a brilliant mainstream career.

But then something happened. Oberst’s pendulum seems to have swung too far from his Bright Eyes days. “Outer South” can barely be called an “album” in the proper sense. It is, rather, big plate of mostly dense, easy-rockin, lukewarm, country tunes with no discernible connection to a common theme. The value of songs which actually speak to each other, of lyrics which are self-involved and self-invested, has been lost on Oberst. The result is a collection of songs which smacks of “A.M.” era Wilco and the Jayhawks, and in a completely boring way. There are standout tracks, however. “White Shoes” an ostensible return to form for Oberst and the only song on “Outer South” that remotely resembles his work with Bright Eyes –it’s a dark, reverberating cave of a song. Oberst’s vocals quiver in the dark over stark, acoustic strumming. He shows more restraint here than when under the Bright Eyes moniker, but it is hardly enough to save the album. “Roosevelt Room” is another strong tune: an aggressive, lefty political-rocker which evokes Springsteen and Neil Young amid cascades of distortion, electric organ, and a heavy groove. Mystic Valley is no Deceparecedos, but they can rock when properly motivated, it would seem. Bandmates Nik Freitas, Jason Boesel (drummer for Rilo Kiley), Taylor Hollingsworth and Macey Taylor all get a turn at the mic, but with mixed and mediocre results. Nik Freitas and Macey Taylor are nearly vocal twins, with rather uninteresting, boyish vocal stylings which lack the innocence and effeminacy that make Stephen Trask listenable and sympathetic. Boesel has a strong, country Baritone, but again, the songs are pretty weak. His version of the earlier Oberst tune, “Eagle on a Pole” is inoffensive, but that’s hardly a compliment. Hollingsworth sing-speaks over undulating new-wave arpeggios about sleeping with an ex-lover on air-matress. Listenable. Not awful. Ok.

“Outer South” is the result of Oberst maturing into someone who feels less and less inclined to press the envelope musically. Sure, he still sings about drugs, sex, left-wing politics, estrangement, and misery. People have been doing that for years though, and all of the things about Conor Oberst that made him the Conor Oberst we knew and loved. Maybe he’s just having more fun and lightening up. Maybe he finally got that cocktail of anti-depressants just right. Either way, we can only hope Conor will strike a balance between the smothering madness and misery that was Bright Eyes and the tasty-licks (yet, oxymoronically, bland) country rock of Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band.


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