Friday, March 24, 2006

Steve MacKay

Michigan and Arcturus

Saxophone player Steve MacKay has played a crucial role in the secret history of American underground music. Listen to Funhouse by the Stooges and his manic skronk and wail is there with blistering resonance. The Violent Femmes, Mike Watt and J. Mascis all have called upon his stormy lungs to make their offerings a little less tame. Rather than rest on his laurels, MacKay’s ever-mutating Radon Ensemble traverses gut-punching swells of jazz, noise and improvisation. Michigan and Arcturus cycles through nearly a dozen players, capturing turbulent and baroque instability. Fuzzed-out recording qualities add grit to an already visceral drive in “The Moment Is Sinking, pt. 1” and “Oirt Rewop,” illustrating the real-time spontaneity summoned during these sessions. Sound levels in “Los Altos Blues” shred the red line into ribbons, trying desperately to contain a brutal balance of drone and melody. It’s the imperfections that make these songs perfect.

-- Chad Radford

(Published by Creative Loafing. March, 23, 2006).

With Purple Ribbon Entertainment, Big Boi breeds homegrown talent

During the weeks and months leading up to the Sept. 23, 2003 release date for OutKast’s fifth and most highly anticipated recording, Speaker Boxxx/The Love Below, the music press’ poison pins were primed. The group’s principle players, Andre 3000 (né Andre Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan Patton) went the Kiss route with the new album(s) simultaneously offering two separate records under one package, to explore their artistic differences. In many minds this budding division of Atlanta’s six-time GRAMMY Award winning hip-hop duo meant the future of the group was in doubt. But over two years down the road OutKast’s name still looms large on the hip-hop horizon.

Was the media making a mountain out of a molehill over the artistic parting of a pair whose previous work together, including Aquemini and Stankonia received critical acclaim for balancing brainy beats and dirrrty funk?
“We needed it and appreciate that y’all did that for us, Big Boi muses over a speaker phone while getting his hair cut in the Purple Ribbon offices in preparation for a photo shoot. "The music was sounding good, but we needed controversy to sell it,” he continues. The group had largely steered clear of any real controversy, save for a troublesome ‘98 single "Rosa Parks." The song brandishes the chorus "Ah-ha, hush that fuss. Everybody move to the back of the bus," which earned OutKast a law suit from the now deceased civil rights figure after whom the song takes its name.
“It's like this,” Big Boi adds. “We didn’t shoot nobody. We didn’t rape nobody and nobody went to jail. All we had was Rosa Parks goin’ on!”

Regaining composure Big sets the record straight. “We’re serious about the music. We’re not breaking up, but there is a form of evolution happening. Dre has graduated to a new level and is moving on to something else. What we do together is all about the music and if the music ain’t right we ain’t doin’ it.”

While Andre has been gallivanting around Hollywood, getting face time in films like Be Cool and Four Brothers, Big Boi’s gaze remains fixed on Atlanta. Heading up a Virgin Records subsidiary label, Purple Ribbon Entertainment, and fostering a stable of new comers and notorious Atlanta-based artists, Big Boi is spearheading a renaissance in the dirty South. Purple Ribbon is the successor of OutKast’s Aquemini Records, which was run by both Dre and Big Boi; now run solely by Big Boi. And with Purple Ribbon he’s giving music made by ATLiens for ATLiens a platform to invade the rest of the world as well.

The first video from the label is for the single “I’m On It” by the Purple Ribbon All-Stars, featuring Big Boi, Killer Mike, C-Bone and Rock D spitting a hodgepodge of lyrical vignettes. Gone is the offbeat geek funk akin to Andre’s presence. In its place rolls a clunky cadence that stutters over various scenes of barbeques, football games and an army of buxom babes milling about in tiny t-shirts emblazoned with the burning question, “Got Purp?”

“I’m On It” thunders to life with motorized, rhythmic workouts but the angular and minimal arrangements of the song are hardly indicative of the label’s direction. The song also appears on Purple Ribbon’s first release, a compilation titled Got Purp Vol 2 – the follow-up to a low-key mix CD Big released in December ‘04, offers a preview of the label’s eclectic stable of artists. The very name Purple Ribbon alludes to the highest honor awarded to the blue pit bull terriers he breeds and sells through Pitfall Kennels, a family business that’s running ten years strong.

Sleepy Brown of the Organized Noize production team, good ‘ol boy rapper Bubba Sparxxx and grimy street scholar Killer Mike are amongst Purple Ribbon’s higher-profile acts. But lesser known locals, including young soul slingers Janelle Monae and Scar, and decadent rap outfit Konkrete bring fresh faces to the label. Big Boi’s only prerequisite: the music is funk based. “It’s got to be funky!” Big Boi declares. “We make music by experimenting with grooves, melodies, patterns, so when you hear it, you’re like ‘wooooo shit!’” he crows before likening the label’s sound to an act of oral sex. “You know what I’m sayin’?!?”

Purple Ribbon’s first artist release is Bubba Sparxxx’s third recording, The Charm. “As in the third time is…” Sparxxx elaborates. “We’ve taken some chances with this one, bringing in some different elements, but it’s all still rooted in hip-hop,” he adds. “With my last album there was a blue grass element. With this one we did some real punk rock [or as he says ‘puh rawk’] type things.”

Sparxxx’s cut on Got Purp 2, titled “Claremont Lounge” is a murky anthem set in the scene of Atlanta’s sleaziest of sleazy night spots, accompanied by Coool Breeeze and most notably OutKast protégé Killer Mike. As the fast and fluid voice behind OutKast’s single “The Whole World,” Killer Mike was once declared by Big Boi as “OutKast’s only son.” His balance of slang and social consciousness embodies the engine that drives Purple Ribbon, which landed him a spot in the Purple Ribbon All-Stars. But with Sparxxx, he’s taken the tone down a notch to set off a tempo that’s slow and low.

Sleepy Brown is the son of vocalist Jimmy Brown who scored the minor hit, “Dazz” in the ‘70s, fronting the Atlanta jazz/funk ensemble Brick, and producer of such hip-hop and R&B staples TLC, En Vogue and Ludacris. His debut release, Mr. Brown moves toward a more traditional soul sound. “I’m just trying to take people back to a time when there was still good music,” he explains. “I love that Atlanta has crunk, I get crunk too. But my sound is coming from the way I was brought up.”

Sighting influences as far ranging as Rodgers & Hammersein to the Jackson 5, Janelle Monae’s sound is a futuristic whirr that balances soul, sci-fi and Broadway. Her tentatively titled first release, Metropolis is based on a screenplay she’s writing about a cyborg woman who falls in love with a human. “It’s a futuristic musical,” she explains. “It’s paralleled to things like slavery, interracial dating and how gays are viewed as being weird because they love who they love.”

Scar’s debut, Scarred 4 Life is a more down-to-Earth offering. His sound builds around smooth vocalizations that evoke the soulful crooning of everyone from Marvin Gaye to Babyface to Tony! Toni Toné crooner Raphael Sadiq. “People always meet me and say ‘I thought you were a rapper,’” he laughs. After graduating from high school in Oxford, Scar was involved in a car accident that took the life of his brother and his cousin, and left a profound scar across his face. “Every scar tells a story,” he explains “When you see me you won’t forget that scar and when you hear me, you now the story behind it.”

Konkrete’s as yet untitled debut is also in the works. The group revels in indulgent vulgarity, depravity, and decadence with a sluggish and thuggish beat. Rounded out by emcees Cory “Black-Owned C-Bone” Andrews, Nathaniel “Supa Nate” Elder and James “Lil’ Brotha” Patton (A.K.A. Big Boi’s younger sibling), Konkrete raps about the harsh realities of everyday life with unapologetic fervor. The group’s contributions to Got Purp. 2, “Lovin This” and “Sh*t Ya Draws” are a slow crawl of Southern lingo and beats that ooze like molasses from the speakers.

As for Big Boi, plans remain for a solo release on Purple Ribbon, but not until sometime in 2007. “As soon as I finish up my contractual obligations with Jive Records it’s gonna be like Michael Jordan playing for the Bulls and owning the Bulls,” he laughs. “I have a bout 18 to 20 tracks ready. It’s a lot, but I like to slow cook ‘em like neck bones.”

In the midst of it all Outkast’s imminent return arrives with the soundtrack to director Bryan Barber’s Idlewild (HBO), set to be released Dec. 6, which also stars both Dre and Big Boi. The film is a musical set in the South during the prohibition era, where modern hip-hop fodder i.e. wine women and song, are just as relevant in 1930’s as they are today. Talks of yet another OutKast record next year have been quashed. “We don’t want to rush anything,” Big Boi adds. “We want to see how the audience reacts to the soundtrack before we do the next one.”

--Chad Radford

(Published by Georgia Music Magazine, December 1, 2005).


Tee Pee Records

If J. Mascis plays drums in Witch, why do the squealing guitar sounds on the group’s self-titled debut sound so much like Dinosaur Jr.? Or more specifically, Dinosaur Jr. played at 45 RPMs when it should be turning at 33. This new outfit from the rural east coast once known for burning witches channels the ancient and wicked psychic malevolence of its stomping grounds through distortion, chilling rhythms and ethereal textures.

Opening cut “Seer” clocks in at just under 8 minutes of syncopated head-nod riffs. Dave Sweetapple’s mountainous bass carves a path in an avalanche of sweat and archaic wizardry.

Witch is born of a subconscious musical lineage that’s linked directly to Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Nirvana’s Bleach and even Black Sabbath circa Paranoid. As such this is a heavy metal record made by decidedly non-metal players. Vocalist Kyle Thomas and guitarist Asa Irons are on loan from Vermont’s freak folk group Feathers. They also helped shape Devendra Banhart's album, Cripple Crow. The sincerity with which they approach this project comes to fruition on the album’s dually crushing opuses “Rip Van Winkle” and “Hand of Glory.” Tenants of the indie / art rock guilds often have difficulty handling heavy metal with the respect it deserves (eg. Goblin Cock, Tenacious D et. al.) There’s nothing tongue in cheek going on here. Witch is a master of its own supernatural reality, and that reality is heavy as hell.

--Chad Radford

(Published by Flagpole Magazine, February 2006)

Prefuse 73 / A Grape Dope

One Word Extinguisher (Warp Records)
Missing Dragons EP (Galaxia)

With artists increasingly mining the base elements of hip-hop -- beats and rhymes -- and channeling them through electronica's synthetic DNA, is it any surprise that we've now christened the term "post-hip-hop"?

With their respective takes on the concept, Prefuse 73's One Word Extinguisher and A Grape Dope's Missing Dragons EP sever the thug vibe and grandiose posturing that commercialization has brought to the music, replacing them, instead, with introspective melodies and an intelligent sense of being. Their muse brings with it an "anti-bling" air of sophistication that carries them in separate but parallel directions.

Prefuse 73 mastermind Scott Herren, for one, hits hard. Rapid-fire beats burst forth in "The End of Bitters -- International." Diced vocal mutterings clash with coherent rhymes under frantic changes, allowing Extinguisher to pick up where 2001's Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives left off. But a discernible change takes place in the fourth track, "Uprock and Invigorate," when serenity creeps in and the pace crawls to something less chaotic.

Jumbled beat-boxing in "Busy Signal" and the voice of an instructional recording discussing proper Southern vernacular being hijacked by gangsters in "Southerners" show a playful side of Herren's music. Elsewhere he adopts an existential approach. In "Huevos With Jeff and Roni," sobering rhymes delivered by guest emcee Mr. Lif forewarn of the dangers of living too fast, declaring, "You live ignorant but expect to die wise... Release everything that you held dear like your car, jewelry, your cash and your career/And don't forget that time you couldn't spare to sit down and lend your three children an ear."

On the flip side, A Grape Dope's John Herndon (Tortoise, Isotope 217) dwells on a means to an end, rather than on reaching the end. No discernible direction ever fully takes shape throughout Missing Dragons, as warm, meandering tones and drawn-out moments in rhythm create an atmosphere that's void of any political or philosophical messages. Beats carry the music as the recording opens with a polyrhythmic heap of programmed and organic percussions in "Action: Showered Us." For Herndon, the voice creates rhythmic texture. Heavily disguised vocals peek out from behind the instrumental arrangements in songs like "When You Crash and Burn" and "I'll Spread It," but the drums always remain in the foreground.

Herndon allows the verbal silence to be broken once as actual lyrics take shape in "Red Hat Attack," which features Dose One of the Anticon collective. But instead of taking the reins, Dose One's voice is garbled by electronic effects and inane repetitive content, mutating his presence into an added layer of Herndon's percussive delivery.

Unlike Herren, whose all-encompassing methods tweak the limits of beats and rhymes, Herndon is content exploring the percussive aspects of post-hip-hop. His sparing use of vocals adds depth to his rhythmic approach without losing focus on his dynamic. Regardless of the deviation, however, both artists' methods yield poignant results, and they take "post-hip-hop" to a decidedly unpretentious place.

--Chad Radford

(published by The Phoenix New Times, June 5 2003)

New Song And Dance

Tilly And The Wall Taps Into The Untried And True Approach

"People really seem to enjoy watching Jamie's tap dancing during our shows," explains Tilly and the Wall guitarist-vocalist Derek Pressnall. It's a remarkable observation made by the former Atlanta native, and one that's wholly opposite from what anyone else in the group would have said less than six months ago: most notably Tilly's resident tap dancer, Jamie Williams. Since 2001, the Omaha, NE-based folk-fluff five-piece has fashioned a vibrant and stripped-down sound that has placed the group amongst the Midwestern city's most determined acts.

Following the traditions of The Mamas & The Papas, The B-52's and the Carpenters, Tilly and the Wall's boy-girl vocal interplay revels in a wide-eyed '60s folk-pop sparkle. In only a few notes, love, sex, teen angst and death are all covered with feel-good revelry. Williams has stated that the brunt of any negative criticism the group faces falls on her shoulders, simply because it's easy to take aim at a tap dancer in such a buoyant pop group. In the wake of its first U.S. tour and the somewhat unorthodox release of its first full-length Wild Like Children, things are moving rapidly for Tilly and the Wall. "Since we put out the record, a lot of people have been listening to the music and not just focusing on the tap dancing," says Williams. "A lot of the things I'm hearing more of now are about the band, the music and the lyrical content of the songs - not just snap judgments about a dancer in the band."

It's no surprise that in finding new listeners across the country, Tilly and the Wall has acquired a more accepting audience. Live, the group's presence is like watching a high school talent show. Pressnall and Williams, along with keyboard player Nick White (Bright Eyes) and vocalists Kianna Alarid and Neely Jenkins stand stiff-legged and shoulder-to-shoulder. As each member sways to the music, Williams' metallic snap and rattle takes shape as the percussive part of each song. Upon initial viewing, her dancing seems like a bit of a gimmick, but after closer inspection, the functional and experimental qualities of her role in the group reveal themselves.

Youth Gone Wild

Prior to Wild Like Children, Tilly and the Wall self-released a CD-R EP titled Woo!. The EP was recorded by Bright Eyes songwriter Conor Oberst and mixed by AJ Mogis at Presto Studios in Lincoln, NE, the same production set-up that's responsible for the majority of Saddle Creek Records' output. The six songs that make up the recording portray the group as a sunny and fey pop ensemble. While the songwriting and wavering production qualities culminate in breezy and decisive melodies, Woo! offered only a glimpse at the shape of things to come.

From the thunderous claps and stomps of the album's opener "Fell Down the Stairs" to the wilted strumming of "Let It Rain," Wild Like Children, builds around a smattering of vocal harmonies, vague keyboards lines and brisk acoustic rhythms. Through it all, loose narratives are driven by stories and characters enduring lovelorn and melancholy circumstances.

"Nights of the Living Dead," tells a poignant tale of late nights fueled by underage debauchery and adventures in Atlanta's squalid sectors. The song was written as a tribute to Pressnall's fallen high school friend Ben Eberbaugh, the former Black Lips guitarist who died in a car accident in December of 2002. Shortly after his death, several of Eberbaugh's acquaintances from local groups - including members of Jet By Day, the Lids and the Carbonas - gathered songs to be released on Ben Eberbaugh: A Rockin' Tribute compilation CD in 2003. "Nights of the Living Dead" was originally recorded and released on the tribute and reappears on Wild Like Children with unaltered reverence. "That song is all about being alive and death and if you are alive now some day you're going to die," Pressnall adds with a stoic and straightforward tone.

Over the course of a month during the winter of 2003, Tilly and the Wall set up in several rooms of a friend's house and recorded with Steve Pederson (Criteria, ex-Cursive) and Oberst. Alternating between embracing the din of a four-track recording and the sheen of ProTools software, Wild Like Children staggers between lo-fi, basement tape qualities and hi-fi clarity. "We recorded and re-recorded some things and left other things really raw," says Williams. "Some songs are much more produced than others and we really tried to balance that on the album. It's a fine line and it's something we were very conscious of when we were recording. We wanted it to be more produced than our first EP but we still wanted to keep the lo-fi quality because that's who we are and we wanted to stay true to that."

Tear Down The Wall

Released by Team Love Records, a new imprint founded by Oberst and co-owner Nate Krenkel, the experimental qualities of Wild Like Children run much deeper than the songwriting. When Team Love made the record available for sale in June, Wild Like Children was simultaneously posted in its entirety on the label's website for free download. The logic at work doubles as utter defiance of the recording industry's vilification of downloading music, and as a stirring promotional tool. Making the record downloadable from Team Love's website seems counter-productive to bolstering record sales; in reality, it's had quite the opposite effect. At presstime, Williams reported that in the neighborhood of 250,000 single songs from the record had been downloaded, and in turn this has translated to selling more than 3,000 copies of Wild Like Children, so far. These numbers far exceed anything the group ever imagined, considering the record is its first real offering for both the brand and a new record label. "I couldn't have ever asked for anything more," laughs Pressnall. "My goal was to sell at least 1,000 copies, and I never would have expected it to exceed that."

Williams concurs, adding that none of it would have been possible without the Internet.

"A lot of people have come up to us at shows and told us that they heard our record on-line and they wouldn't have ever heard it otherwise, and probably would have never even given us a chance. Or that they listened to it on-line and decided to go out and buy it," says Williams. "So for us it's been really good as far as word of mouth goes. It's a lot of money to buy a CD and you want to know that you're going to like what you're buying. Also, even if you can't afford to buy our CD you can still hear the music and people who listen to it come to the shows and buy a t-shirt or support us in some other way."

She continues: "The Internet is so important for us and independent bands in general. It makes such a huge difference in getting your voice heard and getting your band out there. At the level we're at it can only help us."

And that level at which Tilly and the Wall has found itself is the result of meshing untried and true approaches to the music and its dissemination.

That, and tap dancing.

--Chad Radford

(Published by Flagpole Magazine, October 2004).

Monday, March 20, 2006

Reinventing the Blues

Former Swans drummer Jonathan Kane hits the blue note with measured minimalism

When Jonathan Kane takes his place behind the drums at Eyedrum on Monday, March 20th it will be his first performance in Atlanta in nearly 23 years. In May of 1983 Kane thundered through town with the New York proto-industrial outfit, Swans opening for Sonic Youth on what was lovingly called the “Savage Blunder Tour.” It was the first time either of the seminal NYC noise rockers had taken their shows on the road. Each night both bands were greeted with scowling bewilderment from the audience. The Atlanta gig at The 688 Club was no different as the group unleashed it’s alienating and gut-punching pummel onto the South.

For Kane a lot has changed over the last two-and-a-half decades. Rather than bashing out plodding, industrial rhythms, these days he plays the blues. But don’t expect to catch him jamming on gentrified covers of “Mustang Sally,” Kane’s sound is a blasting, instrumental blues-drone dirge that balances the music’s natural sense of minimalism with working man’s grit and an avant-garde shimmer.

The swirling, road house rhythms on his debut EP, February (Table of the Elements) are a far cry from Swans’ crushing industrial racket. But Kane maintains that despite the aesthetic differences between Swans’ skulk and his own blustery blues inventions, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“My first passion in music has always been the blues,” Kane says. “It’s where I cut my teeth.”

After spending his teenager years in Woodstock, NY drumming for the Kane Bros. Blues Band – alongside his brother Anthony on vocals and harmonica – Kane sharpened his teeth at Berkley Music College in Boston.

Soon after, he returned to New York and joined forces with vocalist/guitarist Michael Gira. The two first convened as Circus Mort, but on the eve of releasing their first record, the group broke up. That same night Gira invited Kane to join a new group he was putting together, called Swans.

“I was still thinking about the blues in one way or another,” Kane adds. “When I hooked up with Michael I still had that sense of time and rhythm in my mind -- even while I was pounding away on Swans’ songs.” he continues. “We would trade records: He would give me a Wire record and I would give him Howlin’ Wolf. It was between these various influences that we forged Swans.”

Kane didn’t stick around with Swans for too much longer. Only a few obscure, early releases, including the group’s first full-length, Filth bare Kane’s name, but he left an indelible mark on Swans’ sound. His propensity for slowing down tempos created the creeping, dirge-like pace that became the group’s signature which lasted long after Kane’s departure.

“Blues time and playing a song that was intense but also slow was important in developing those rhythms that were a slow, crawling thing,” Kane explains. “After I left the group they were still known for that slow sound and I have to claim a large amount of credit for that.”

After leaving Swans Kane continued working in downtown New York art rock circles. His most notable forays include drumming in Rhys Chatham’s 100 Guitar Orchestra, and providing the infinite beat behind minimalism godfather La Monte Young in the Forever Bad Blues Band.

A performance by the Forever Bad Blues Band consists of anywhere from 1-3 hours of the group locking into a dirty, atonal blues riffs with minimal chord progressions. Kane’s time spent with Young no doubt informed his more recent work but the seed of minimalism hiding inside the dank and distorted cadences of the blues has always piqued Kane’s ears.

Like Latin, blues music posses all of the qualities of a dead language. Any major developments in the genre are few and very far between. But despite its cultural stagnancy, Kane sees it as a vital art form bound for a renaissance. “Blues is at the core of all American popular music, but the last major development was in the ’50s when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf plugged-in to amplifiers,” Kane declares. “Everything in its wake has referenced that. Nonetheless it’s a timeless form because it’s about human feeling and emotion first. It’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with a new way to approach it,” he continues. “One thing I had thought about for a long time before working with La Monte was that the blues is an inherently minimalist art form. At its most complex it’s three chords. At its very least it’s one chord, and that’s minimalism in a nut shell.”

Throughout February, monstrous rhythms in “Curl” and the circular motion of “Pops” build tension with subtly shifting parts shrouded in voluptuous grooves. “Motherless Child” is a traditional number that unfolds with Morricone-esque majesty and a rework of Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” injects a swinging blue note into the pendulous plod of Chatham’s stark arrangmenets.

Live these songs take on an even larger presence. Kane has assembled a six-piece band, dubbed Jonathan Kane’s February which features Modern Lovers founding member, Ernie Brooks playing bass. Four guitarists also supplement the line-up, including David Daniell (San Agustin), Igor Cubrilovic and David Bicknell and Jon Crider of NYC experimental rock act, Clara Venus.

Just as Kane’s show sidesteps the trappings of bar band blues rock, it also transcends the stuffy, art gallery nature of minimalism while forging both influences into rollicking and cerebral groove-driven nods. “Something that makes you think and makes your pelvis move is the ultimate experience,” Kane adds without a hint of irony. “We played Tonic in Manhattan the other night and people actually danced,” he laughs. “You don’t see that at a minimalist concert. I’ve played Tonic a million times with other people and I never had people out there get up and start shaking their butts.”

Story By Chard Radford. Top photo by Bridget Barrett. Bottom photo by Holly Anderson. Published by Creative Loafing, Atlanta (March 6, 2006).


I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Saddle Creek Records

It’s getting harder to pick apart Conor Oberst by splashing in the puddles of sentimental drivel he’s been pissing on the masses for over a decade, but it’s still an indispensable critical pastime. Though his growth into fitting the shoes of a witty and rousing songwriter is undeniable, with each step forward the once endearing flaws in Bright Eyes’ character are becoming more and more of an annoyance. With I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, Oberst offers up two fundamentally divergent records that highlight his evolution from an emotionally feeble child to an emotionally feeble man. Fleshing out his strongest and most problematic traits Wide Awake is a stripped-down return to folk form while Digital Ash carries the artist into a decidedly more electronic future.

Immediately noticeable throughout both records is the absence of the wincing vibrato that has long pulled listeners out of the moment with each go around. Oberst has gained a healthy dose of confidence with his voice which in turn fortifies his songwriting.

Acoustic Allegories…
Wide Awake opens with a bit of cozy story telling about riding in an airplane that’s plummeting toward the ocean. The impending crash gives rise to a downward spiral of songs about god, love, sex, death, war and enduring them all. Drawing out the last few moments before all is lost “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” opens the gates to a dreamy and heartrending rash of fugue-like reflections. Emmylou Harris’ breezy and Earth-toned vocal harmonies are a sweet and extravagant touch to the indie rock troubadour’s lovelorn caterwauling. And as Earth’s one last caress draws closer her voice takes on a dazzling and allegorical purity. As the record wears on however, she wears out her welcome. Their morose duet singing about making love on the floor while the “televised war” plays out on a TV in the background somehow sums up everything that is wrong with the world in more ways than they could have ever intended.

“Lua” is a sparse and psychologically anemic number that finds Oberst alone, strumming and blubbering away over lost love. In the interest of progress this bout of self-indulgence is the least interesting song on the disc, bundling up all of the baggage from his former glories and lugging them along for the new record. It’s also the one that placed him in the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales Chart before the record even saw the light of day. On the Hot 100 Bright Eyes is a stranger in a strange land, flanked by the unsavory likes of the Nelly’s, Diddy’s, Britney’s and Ludas of the world. But when a miserable Midwestern kid with an acoustic guitar and an indie budget knocks these glamour shots off the block it speaks volumes about the quality of the product plaguing the airwaves.

That’s not to undermine the honesty and emotion Oberst pours into his songs. It’s precisely this type of fortitude that mainstream music is lacking. But the preciousness of it all wears thin when placed next to budding new songs, like “Another Travelin’ Song” or “Train Under Water.” Or most notably the crashing crescendo of “Road to Joy,” which brings the journey full circle as the sun comes up, evoking the albums title and its impending fate, barefacedly unveiling that it was all just a dream.

…and Electronic Explorations
On the other side of Morning, Digital Ash comes to light with a starry and nocturnal quality that moves Bright Eyes in a genuinely different direction while not losing sight of Oberst’s true character. It would be a misnomer to describe Digital Ash as an “electronic album,” as it is more of a collection of organic sounds being manipulated by electronic means -- any and all similarities to Dylan's "electric albums" is purely coincidental. Or is it precisely calculated?

“Time Code” and “Down A Rabbit Hole” come across as tech-savvy songs, cluttered with bits of random electronic things that go bump in the night. But the overall feel maintains the balance teetering between a gallop and an emotionally drained twinkle. Despite the ultramodern sheen and fantastic production qualities Digital Ash is unmistakably Bright Eyes. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” is the other song that reached the Hot 100 chart -- reaching the number 2 slot -- adding a cool and Kraftwerkian pop tone to his wavering voice. But soon after “Theme from a Piñata” delivers one of Oberst’s most embarrassing lyrics to date. “I feel like a piñata once you take a swing at me./ If you could just crack the shell open I think inside you would find something sweet.” Say what! That’s enough to make even Morrissey choke on his own vomit. In the post-Dylan landscape of songwriters working their way into the history books Bright Eyes has a clear and unmistakable lead. But any more stumbles like this and he can count himself out of the race.

-- Chad Radford (Published By Flagpole Magazine, Athens, GA, January 2005. Re-edited by Chad Radford)