Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band

The folk swagger and lyrical imagery of Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band may cause ancient magic, UFOs, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered Aztec serpent-sky-and-almighty-creator God, to emerge from your speakers. That's probably because the record was recorded in Tepoztlan, Mexico, a place famous for those three things and the locus of Oberst’s most recent vision quest. He and his bandmates lived and built a studio there in four adobe-like houses complete with ceramic tile floors.
Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band first appeared on the stage of the 400 Bar in Minneapolis back in December 2007, a well performed show that resourceful fans can find online. The new album is a Bright Eyes record for those who somehow find sorrow laden, quivering, pessimistic whispers too inaccessible. Songs like the bluesy rock and roll "I Don’t Want to Die (In a Hospital)" is something to which you can clap along.

The project has a fixed and fundamental arrangement rooted in festival folk music. You won’t hear any of the digital effects prevalent in previous Bright Eyes albums. The set up is Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott on keyboards and trumpet, on guitar is Nik Freitas whose album Sun Down came out this past May, guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth, bassist Macey Taylor (brother of Saddle Creek artist Maria), and drummer Jason Boesel.

To say that this is Oberst’s first solo album in thirteen years isn’t quite accurate. He’s still playing with a lot of the friends that help him with Bright Eyes. Also, of course, there are the three prepubescent "self-titled" cassettes. The album dons a new name because producer and multi-instrumentalist, Mike Mogis, couldn’t be a part of it. Oberst told The Independent that he plans to return to the studio this November to record a new Bright Eyes record. Mogis’ absence gave Oberst a chance to do what he does best, play with his sound.

Oberst said, “My whole modus operandi for the project was that it should be stress-free. If we got stuck on a song we’d just stop, light a fire, drink beer and watch the fireworks down below.” This M.O. translates to the music well as it sounds lighter, relaxing, lively at times, and (although it feels like blasphemy) happy. There is a film of optimism stretched over the album with lines like “There’s no sorrow that the sun’s not gonna heal” from "Sausalito."

Oberst’s poetry has evolved to juxtapose contrasting imagery as in "Lenders in the Temple" that takes you from Caesar and Joan of Arc to paper tigers and pink flamingos in malls. One of the most personal songs is "Eagle on a Pole." It’s also probably the most like a Bright Eyes song, with a slower tempo and lines like “I could never get used to happy sounds” recalling “the sound of loneliness makes me happier” from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning's "Poison Oak." If you listen closely enough to the riddle lyrics, a tale of acceptance and infidelity can be unwound.

Sadly some of the best songs from the live set didn’t make the album. "I Got a Reason #2" appeared on the second Mystic Valley Band record and "Man Named Truth" showed up on the Monsters of Folk record. Several other songs made it to the short tour only EP called Gentleman's Pact, including the eerie alien abduction symphony, "Synethete's Song," and the title track, "Gentleman's Pact." The EP also covers an old folk song called "Corina, Corina" (which was also recorded by Bob Dylan for his Freewheelin').  Oberst adds a few words here or there, saying, "You're out there in Toluca, I'm trapped in Tepozlan!" The other song on the EP is "Breezy." The title was a nickname for Bright Eyes' harpist Sabrina Duim. The song is a chilling piano love confession with a crackling fire in the background. The song seems essential to the album, giving it a new context.

Like all of Bright Eyes before it, if you’re looking for answers to why Oberst does anything, it’s in his lyrics. You just have to listen closely enough.

Interview with The Independent


Published at WERS.org on August 06, 2008

Similar to the Mango Nebula re-arrangement of Cassadaga (see link below), the solo album has been re-imagined into a Bright Eyes album ::

Bright Eyes :: I'm Really Freezing, It's Breezy

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