Music Review: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - "Outer South"

For better or worse, Conor Oberst has always taken varying approaches to writing music. His career encompasses a slew of genres, from gunge/emo (Decaprecidos) to electronic (Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) and his current folk stint. But one thing has always been for sure: a Conor Oberst album is a one-man show. Most of his past projects (including his first album with the Mystic Valley Band) have featured Oberst as the sole lead vocalist, singing familiar lyrics in the first person – and in general, it’s worked well. But Outer South, released on May 5 by Merge Records, is a different story. Oberst has given up much of his creative control, with seven of the album’s sixteen tracks having been written or sung by his bandmates.

Stylistically, the album drifts further down the bluesy Americana path that its predecessor marked out. But while Oberst’s first outing with the Mystic Valley Band still possessed much of Bright Eyes’ charm (“Get-Well-Cards,” “Moab,” “Souled Out!!!”), this one comes off with a sparse dryness. Outer South offers a few bright spots, but it’s weighted down with an equal number of tracks that you could skip without missing a thing. Also, none of the Mystic Valley Band members seem to be capable of sharing frontman duties with their leader. Other than Jason Boesel’s deep croon on “Difference is Time,” the non-Oberst vocals on the record are timid and inconsequential.

Still, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Oberst commands his ensemble of jangling guitars and wailing organs with prowess on “Slowly/Oh So Slowly,” “Cabbage Town,” and the album’s best song, “I Got the Reason #2.” When things go right on Outer South, they really go right. The triumphant chord of vocals at the six-minute mark on “Reason #2,” the lyrics on the fourth verse of “Roosevelt Room,” and the climactic last two minutes of “Cabbage Town” are all musical moments that rival anything else in Oberst’s discography.

But for each inspiring moment, there are two moments that wouldn’t inspire much more than a yawn. There are about five solid tracks on the album, and in between these infrequent bright spots, the band drags through handfuls of dreary, stale fillers. There’s some fodder for playlists here, but don’t expect to listen to this record in its entirety (a whopping seventy minutes) more than a couple of times. That’s the danger of releasing two full-length LPs in a nine-month period. More often than not, the second effort ends up as a mediocre work that could have benefitted greatly from more time in the cooker. Outer South is no exception.

Score: 5.5/10

So it goes,
Derek

2 comments:

sara-beth May 10, 2009 at 11:03 AM  

as we've discussed before, i entirely agree with you that this album is a bit dry at parts--but, its conor and i am thus inclined to listen to it. the parts that are good, are GOOD and that's what matters. it really could have used a few more months in the cooker. i really wonder what gems would have been the product of being more well done.

Derek May 10, 2009 at 11:38 AM  

Same. Also, many of the weaker songs are more fun in a live setting. They played a lot of the album at Terminal 5 last November and I liked the show. I guess some of that southern, good time edge gets lost in a studio...

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