Plumbiferous Media

Outer South - Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

May 10th 2009
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Outer South - Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley BandConor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
Outer South
Score: 38

Conor Oberst and the Mys­tic Val­ley Band is the lat­est of Conor Ober­st’s long list of projects, includ­ing his best-known band, Bright Eyes. Out­er South is Ober­st’s sec­ond album with the group fol­low­ing 2008’s Conor Oberst. Sad­ly, Out­er South is cer­tain­ly not an improve­ment on that first album.

The lack of pro­duc­tion val­ues is pos­si­bly the largest hole in Out­er South. While it’s unlike­ly that the album was record­ed out­side of a stu­dio, the album some­times sounds so canned and flat that it could eas­i­ly have been record­ed in a large card­board box.  Addi­tion­al­ly, many of the tracks were mixed fair­ly bad­ly, as the rel­a­tive vol­ume lev­els seem to fit togeth­er only occa­sion­al­ly. Two exam­ples of this would be the sur­pris­ing­ly promis­ing pair, “Blood­line” and “Spoiled,” eas­i­ly the strongest tracks on the album.

The same record­ing issues which plague the album as a whole are equal­ly vis­i­ble in the vocals, which are ren­dered flat and fea­ture­less by the tepid style. Even if the album had been record­ed flaw­less­ly, though, the vocals would most like­ly have remained unre­mark­able. Though the inclu­sion of five sep­a­rate vocal­ists could nor­mal­ly be expect­ed to inject vari­ety into an album, here it sim­ply pro­vides five inter­pre­ta­tions of the word “con­gest­ed.” Ober­st’s voice on Out­er South is miss­ing the depth it pos­sessed on his albums with Bright Eyes, and we’re left with a soporif­ic, indis­tin­guish­able sound. Three of the four oth­er singers (Nik Fre­itas, Jason Boe­sel, and Macey Tay­lor) suf­fer from the same sound issue but have fair­ly unre­mark­able - and unin­ter­est­ing voic­es. Tay­lor Hollingsworth (who sings lead on “Air Mat­tress” and the clos­ing track “Snake Hill”), how­ev­er, has eas­i­ly sur­passed the oth­er four, and not in a good way. His tracks take the con­gest­ed qual­i­ty to new heights, pro­duc­ing dull, inef­fec­tu­al anthems.

Though even beau­ti­ful­ly poet­ic and wit­ty lyrics could­n’t have dug the vocals of Out­er South out of the chasm of banal­i­ty they appear to have fall­en into, the actu­al lyrics of Out­er South only serve to wors­en the prob­lem. Cliché to the point of utter unno­ta­bil­i­ty, the lyrics are best described as messy and inane. From Hollingsworth’s mediocre dit­ty about an “Air Mat­tress” to Ober­st’s “Niko­rette,” which includes such gems as “I don’t wan­na dream if it won’t come true,” the lyrics of Out­er South are best ignored - leav­ing you more time to con­sid­er the vocals. Or per­haps not.

While the lyrics on Out­er South gen­er­al­ly fall flat, the instru­men­tals fare sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter. The drum fills work quite well, the bass is gen­er­al­ly present and inter­est­ing, and, while some tracks like the exper­i­men­tal “Dif­fer­ence Is Time” made slop­py use of rhythm gui­tar in the odd loud spikes that end up sound­ing like mis­takes, the gui­tar parts are gen­er­al­ly decent­ly com­plex and musi­cal. What plagues the instru­ments is not a lack of musi­cal­i­ty, but a severe lack of orig­i­nal­i­ty. The major­i­ty of the tracks are so famil­iar and pre­dictable that not only does it sound like one has already heard the tracks before, but it is even pos­si­ble to sing along with the instru­men­tal lines - the first time one hears the album.

Out­er South is not a strong album. From the stuffy vocals and for­get­table lyrics to the pre­dictable if decent­ly played instru­ment lines and messy pro­duc­tion, Out­er South seems to have been quite care­less­ly con­struct­ed. That many of the tracks as well as the album as a whole are quite lengthy only serves to exac­er­bate and present more clear­ly the neg­a­tive qual­i­ties. While there cer­tain­ly seems to have been some­thing inter­est­ing going on in the back of Ober­st’s head when he was plan­ning this album, it was by no means well con­veyed to the final product.

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