Thursday, September 3, 2009
Outer South - Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
SCQ Rating: 48%
Well, I put this off as long as I could. Since its release, I’ve spent the majority of these four intervening months in denial that Outer South really arrived in stores. I mean, in its current form; with half of its sixteen tracks written and performed by backing-band members, in such ragged condition spawning an unedited seventy-minutes, and featuring such atrocious cover-art. With each of these encroaching details unveiled prior to its May release, I watched my window-of-hype slowly shrink… and don’t dare call that prejudice! For the man who has singlehandedly (forget Mike Mogis) forged his demons onto recordings with the scorching intimacy that earned die-hard fans and divisive acclaim, the very premise of Outer South was an uphill battle from the beginning. If last year’s Conor Oberst was an underwhelming grower, it sympathetically foreshadowed the letdown this follow-up dishes out.
Establishing itself along the same desert highway that charmed us on last year’s ‘Sausalito’, Outer South lazes forward with ‘Slowly (Oh So Slowly)’ and ‘To All the Lights in the Windows’; the former a hokier take on his alt-country self-titled, the latter a slight – but elongated – improvement. From there, Conor feels he’s set an appropriate pace and steps back to let the Mystic Valley Band sing a few… and inadvertently slaps his fanbase across the face with the Cars-ish, synth-pop embarrassment of ‘Air Mattress’ and the Wallflowers cover-band blues of ‘Bloodline’. The Mystic Valley Band manages to reign in an interesting alternative take of ‘Eagle on a Pole’ but too many of their front-and-center contributions resemble a Midwestern bar’s open-mic night. There’s a insincerity at work that Oberst might hurdle but these unknown vocalists reek of, and by the time ‘Snake Hill’ opens with an unfamiliar nasally voice stating “I was born on Snake Hill…”, I’m shaking my head and saying “no, you weren’t”. The worst part about these multiple low-points isn’t that Conor sat in studio and let these songs out, but that they might’ve been decent had Oberst manned the vocals. You don’t buy a Springsteen album to hear Max Weinberg sing, you don’t buy a Conor Oberst record to hear him play rhythm guitar.
This is an escape, sure… one strikingly similar to other once-prodigious, “new-Dylan” types; Ryan Adams ditched the solo pressure by burying his name in the Cardinals, Tweedy sidestepped expectations by honing a few adult-contemporary Wilco records. Like his colleagues, Oberst seems to be escaping a legacy set out for him by the press by, you know, jamming with his buds, but don’t completely buy it: Oberst is secretly smitten with his reputation as a generational singer-songwriter. How else could you explain the existence of Outer South as an artistic statement, not to mention a commercial product? The only thing more distressing than Oberst’s interest in this mess of an album is that he expected us to lap it up simply because it showcases his name.