An Introduction: This obviously is not another football recruiting article. Given the growing readership of the site, Mike Frank was gracious enough to provide me the opportunity to write an occasional (hopefully weekly) musical review for the site. With that in mind, I believe its best to provide a little background on my musical tastes and writing experience. The short story goes like this: I'm a Midwestern kid (from St. Louis) who grew up with an eclectic background of musical tastes – everything from classical through "gangsta" rap, down to Country and all points in between. College included five wonderful years at ND (sans the football, as I went during the Bob Davie tenure) filled with me expanding the musical horizons by acting as a DJ on both WVFI and WSND. I also spent some time writing what I like to think were the best music reviews the Observer had ever seen. That said, in all honesty, I just really like music. So, onto the show…
The History Lesson: Bright Eyes lead singer Conor Oberst represents an unusual breed – part wunderkind and part Ryan Adams, who, at the age of fourteen became a critically acclaimed singer and songwriter in his native state of Nebraska. Mirroring the more productive years of bands including Radiohead and Spiritualized, Bright Eyes released a steady stream of albums and EP's at the rate of one a year dating back to 1998. The year 2005 brought its own set of challenges to the band; as it released two divergent albums simultaneously: The British Rock/electronic inspired Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and the more traditional roots album, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.
The Album: When first popped into the CD player "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" beckons its listener with a story as told by Mr. Oberst as a prelude to the music on the album. It's certainly a strange introduction, as my first thoughts included wondering if I had purchased the wrong album by mistake – once the story ends though, the presence of the album shines through clearly. Feeling partially like an Irish pub song and settling down into a folk-driven melody, "At the Bottom of Everything" functions as the perfect prelude to the album. The song will also bring a seasoned Alt-Rock/Country fan back to the days of Ryan Adams fabulous Heartbreaker album – and makes those comparisons between the two artists even more clear. The real surprise of the album comes from the presence of Emmy Lou Harris, a wonderful presence on her own, who supplies background vocals on at least four of the albums tracks: "We are Nowhere and It's Now", "Land Locked Blues", "Another Travelin' Song", and "Poison Oak"
Beyond the enticing presence of Harris, the album comes complete with outstanding, yet somewhat eerie song writing and vocals. Listening to the album gives a feeling of being present in the recording studio, as in some ways the tracks on the album present themselves in a soft or hollow manner. Make no mistake, the album surely does not lack in its style or content – but its presentation stands analogous to dining at a fine restaurant - the food may be great, but in some cases, the ambiance really makes the meal. In this case the ambiance of the album expresses itself when the listener disconnects from the immediate surroundings and allows themselves to relax. Doing so provides enjoyment of the album on a whole other level.
The album also does a fantastic job of mixing its highs and lows following up slower, more melodic tracks with faster paced songs including "Train Under Water" and "Another Travelin' Song". Perhaps the best feature of the album comes in its overall flow – from the unusual introduction, to a strong duet of closing song, the album does not "drag" in any one point, an unusual feature for a folk-driven disc.
It's Sorta Like…: In many ways, the style of Bright Eyes remains reminiscent of the now deceased (RIP) Elliot Smith. From the sometimes quiet and brooding vocals, to the overall folk influence clearly present in the music throughout the album, the album shares much in common with Smith's works. Other parallels exist in Ryan Adams' older works, Whiskeytown, and even the occasional Wilco track (think Summer Teeth).
Caveat Emperor (Let the Buyer Beware): Obviously, if as a listener, you have an underlying skepticism or dislike of folk music, this album probably will not be very enjoyable. That said, sometimes expanding the musical horizons can be fun and this may be one to try either way.
I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning arguably represents the best Bright Eyes work to date. It shows the further developing talents of a once-young prodigy, and really functions as a complete album.
Coming Up: R.L. Burnside – "Burnside on Burnside," Robert Randolph - "Unclassified," The Word – "The Word," Uncle Tupelo – "Anodyne," Yo La Tengo – "Summer Sun," and Handsome Boy Modeling School – "White People."
Questions, comments, suggestions, complaints? Send me an EZ-mail and let me know.