Thursday, April 19, 2007
BRIGHT EYES | Cassadaga | Saddle Creek
Dubbed “wunderkind” by some soon after he began making records at age 13, the backlash against Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes has been equally hyperbolic. Pretentious, goes the chorus, often fueled by outrage at the premature Dylan comparisons and Oberst’s affected singing style.
But Oberst is 27 now, and Cassadaga is the mature work of a gifted and versatile songwriter who’s left behind the vocal drama and teen angst for the restrained-yet-urgent delivery of an adult. In the process, he’s finally earned much of that praise. Aided by the talents of producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, and with a support cast that includes M. Ward, John McEntire (Tortoise), Rachel Yamagata and David Rawlings (Gillian Welch), the record bursts with rousing, loose-limbed country rockers and intricately crafted chamber pop, each setting the other in poignant relief. Pedal steel, female harmonies, and string and horn arrangements flesh out the songs with grace and passion.
Oberst’s early inner-journeys have evolved into the questioning social commentary and philosophical musings of a veteran wanderer; if anything, the Dylan comparisons now seem more appropriate. The songs are jam-packed with evocative imagery and memorable aphorisms about the vicissitudes of the music business, revolution, consumerism, information overload, drug culture, love and spirituality: “A red carpetbagger makes a blackberry call/ to the plastic piranhas in the city of salt,” he sings on “Soul Singer In a Session Band.”
Cassadaga’s probably too long, with only one of the 13 songs clocking in under four minutes, and the torrent of words tends to blur toward the end. But excess in this context doesn’t feel like a sin, especially when delivered in music this solid. —John Schacht
ANTHONY HAMILTON | Southern Comfort | Merovingian
Southern Comfort isn’t a new Anthony Hamilton album, but a compilation of tracks he recorded before striking platinum with 2004’s Comin’ From Where I’m From.
Southern Comfort isn’t a complete album, but a series of inspired demos. It’s a testament to his strengths as a writer and composer that even these early, slightly unfinished cuts speak as powerfully as his later material. On “Why,” he evokes a man who can’t find his own identity. As always, Hamilton keenly observes black life, including his own, without resorting to political harangues or stock stereotypes. His stock-in-trade is everyday people, not super thugs or ghetto rock stars; although his subject matter is commonplace, his excellent songs certainly aren’t. —Mosi Reeves
TRANS AM | Sex Change | Thrill Jockey
There was a time when I didn’t care for Trans Am, because I couldn’t tell whether the trio’s mostly instrumental rock music was meant to be a parody of or an homage to its varied influences: early electronic rock acts such as Kraftwerk, horror movie soundtracks, clanging thrash-rock and burbling disco.
I got over that when I realized I could enjoy the music no matter how it was intended to be heard. The band’s latest CD was conceived, written and recorded in only three weeks. Sex Change also is probably Trans Am’s most stylistically cohesive album.
It begins with the gentle minimalism of “First Words” and the hypnotic, dramatic build of “North East Rising Sun,” the latter song boasting breathy vocals and owing more than a small debt to the instrumentals of Pink Floyd.
Although past Trans Am works inspired comparisons to so-called krautrock, this boasts the welcome influence of ‘70s prog rock. Especially fun to hear is the guitar-heavy “Conspiracy of the Gods” and “Triangular Pyramid,” which adds quasi-operatic vocals and angular shards of melody. Floating psychedelic jazz and mechanical romanticism also can be heard jostling for position on these tracks. —Gene Armstrong