Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bright Eyes’ “Cassadaga” charms with country feel

Conor Oberst, the man behind Bright Eyes, is a true prodigy in an industry full of them. First recording at the ripe age of 14, Oberst has since released seven full length albums for the better part of ten years, garnering hoards of devoted fans along the way with his brand of guitar folk/pop music.

“Cassadaga” is Oberst’s 2007 offering and is an evolution in his sound and style. That style, emotionally charged guitar ballads with a folk influence, has taken on a strong country twang on “Cassadaga”, and it works very well.

The album gets its name from a community in Florida, known for its belief in spiritualism and mysticism, where Oberst and company spent some time while assembling “Cassadaga” over the course of a year.

Oberst does a great job of painting a picture of this place on the album, utilizing acoustic guitars, haunting back-up vocals and whimsical string arrangements to create a very “old world” feel.

The first single off of “Cassadaga” is “Four Winds”, a rollicking fiddle-driven track full of the Midwest charm Oberst is known for. But beneath the acoustic strumming and catchiness of Oberst’s vocals, lie some politically charged lyrics.

Lyrics are where Oberst stumbles on “Cassadaga.” At points, he can be clever and humorous. At others, the lyrics come off as heavy handed and cliché. “Four Winds” features the unevenness of Oberst’s writing. “The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qu'ran's mute/If you burn them all together you get close to the truth still” is a not-so-subtle condemnation on organized religion that is a little too obvious.

But later he comes up with this gem: “All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead/They said, ‘You'd better look alive.’” These two lines are what prevent a very good album from becoming a great one.

“Hot Knives” is one of the best cuts on “Cassadaga” and exemplifies Oberst’s knack for catchy songwriting. This song blends all the sounds on “Cassadaga” - acoustic guitar, piano, strings and Oberst’s ghostly voice – into one gorgeous, sprawling track.

The first half of “Cassadaga” is definitely the stronger half. The “spiritualism” theme is felt a lot more on the first six or seven songs and the songs have a healthy range of sounds. “Four Winds” and “Hot Knives” are the more “rock” songs, while “Make a Plan to Love Me” and “Soul Singer in a Session Band” are more folk and country aligned ballads.

“I Must Belong Somewhere” is a prime example of Oberst over-thinking his songwriting. He gives the listener tons of great small-town imagery – “Leave the garden tools in that rusted shed…”/“Leave the autumn leaves in their swimming pool…”/“Leave the epic poem on its yellowed page…” But then feels the need to bookend them with social commentary - “Leave the widower in his private hell…” / “Leave the poor black child in his crumbling school today…” / “Leave the hawks of war in their capitol…” What could have been a great, simple, whimsical song, turned into a song about the ills of the world today.

There’s a lot to like about “Cassadaga.” Oberst merges many different sounds – country, pop, rock and folk – into a likeable package that is easy to listen to. While the lyrics waver from witty to silly, it is not hard to overlook the bad for the good.

Long-time Bright Eyes fans will pick this up on principle alone and should find it a reassuring step forward in the bands sound. Newcomers to the band should see “Cassadaga” as a good reason to explore Oberst’s past work.

“Cassadaga” is a solid work of folk/country/pop music. Anyone who enjoys good songwriting, expansive guitar ballads and up-tempo country rock songs will find something to love on “Cassadaga.”

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