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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