Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band
This time last year, Conor Oberst was busy springing “firsts” on Bright Eyes fans: his first solo album in more than a decade (Conor Oberst); his first release on Merge Records, rather than long-time homebase Saddle Creek; and his first disc with backing musicians, the Mystic Valley Band. Now, Oberst is back with Outer South, another disc of Tex-Mex flavored indie rock. This time, the Mystic Valley men are not only part of the official band name, but also contribute to half of the tracks, either with vocals or songwriting credits. Apparently, Oberst’s trips south of the border have resulted in a fun, easy-going, communal type of synergy between him and guitarists Taylor Hollingsworth and Nik Freitas, drummer Jason Boesel, bassist Macey Taylor and pianist/fellow Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott. The band wrote the 16 tracks on Outer South while touring as the Mystic Valley Band, and their sunny camaraderie definitely shines through.
The music is fairly straightforward, no-frills alt-country (“Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” “Ten Women,” “Nikorette”) with some electric-guitar jamming (“Roosevelt Room”) and a haunting, lo-fi ballad (“White Shoes”) thrown in for good measure. The biggest jar to the album’s cadence comes from hearing a voice other than Oberst’s distinctive warble. But once you’re used to the idea, Boesel’s Adam Duritz-esque timbre, particularly on “Difference Is Time,” is a perfect counterpart to Oberst’s and enhances the “sitting around a campfire, shooting the shit with my friends” vibe of the album.
Although Oberst has been moving closer to the country end of the musical spectrum ever since Bright Eyes’ 2007 full-length Cassadaga, his biting lyrics don’t seem to change, often seeming to say one thing on first listen, before revealing their darker undertones. Aside from a few of the songs he didn’t write, the words on Outer South are no exception (“You can paint your nails lime green/Rent yourself a limousine/Kidnap the professor’s niece/Let’s tell him that she’s dead/We’ll party in the hotel room/Anything you wanna do,” from “White Shoes”), making exploring the messages on Outer South akin to searching a beachside cave for every last darkened corner and crevice–you’re surely to stumble upon something new and different each time. Though some songs fall short, this is one music-party indulgence that we’re glad we were invited to–even if Oberst should perhaps consider to not so freely dish out the song space to other writers on his next one.