"Cassadaga," Bright Eyes
I'm generally in favor of important music -- music that's not instantly disposable, that aspires to say something about the world we live in, that people might look to for guidance or solidarity. In practice, though, it's pretty rare when a musician aims for importance and doesn't hit bombastic or boring instead. For all his good intentions, I've never quite been able to cotton to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst's attempts at meaningful music. While I appreciate the sentiment of, to take a well-known example, Oberst's fiery anti-Bush screed, "When the President Talks to God," the song's hectoring, indignant tone struck me as being the aural equivalent of eating vegetables. Now, with his last two albums of new material charting in the top 15 of the Billboard top 200, and the 2005 single "Lua" hitting No. 1, Oberst finds himself ready to serve his biggest audience ever. But instead of delivering the monotonous state-of-the-union address his career, and "Cassadaga" first single "Four Winds," suggested he might, Oberst has come out with a lovely, poetic country-rock album full of allusive, elliptical songs.
It's fitting that "Cassadaga" takes its name from the Florida town famous for its psychics and spiritualists because the music on the album communes closely with the sounds and memories of the past. In their richly cinematic Americana -- full of organs, string sections and mandolins -- tracks like "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" and "Soul Singer in a Session Band" strongly recall the myth-obsessed folk rock of early Elton John albums "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Honky Chateau." The swirl of fiddles, loping rhythms and Oberst's simple, familiar melodies conjure up the ghosts of classic country and folk music. The wordy specter of Bob Dylan haunts the album too -- Oberst gives Zimmy a run for his money in the syllables-per-song category. That love of words can lead to clunkers (how exactly is happiness "like a bent-up cigarette"?), but more often than not Oberst comes up with the kind of gorgeously evocative descriptions ("the sky is a torn-up denim") and a-ha! observations ("the best country singers die in the back of classic cars") that make too many other lyricists seem lazy in comparison. Is there a better evocation of the mystery of the songwriter's muse than the following, from "Brakeman"? "All this automatic writing I have tried to understand/ From a psychedelic angel who was tugging on my hand/ It's an infinite coincidence but it doesn't form a plan."
Even though every line on "Cassadaga" has been carefully thought out, every song is treated to a rich arrangement, and every vocal is delivered with total commitment, there's a lightness to the album that was missing from Oberst's previous work, as if he realized importance doesn't have to equate with topicality or strident emotion. I still may have run out of steam about four songs before Oberst did, but to see such a talented young songwriter learn that humble songs about love, friendship and art can matter just as much as ones about politics, hypocrisy and social injustice is to witness something wonderful.
Favorite track: "Soul Singer in a Session Band"
Clothed always in black, with intense sunken eyes and a dramatic wave of dark hair, Nick Cave seems like a character from one of his stormy, gothic songs come to life -- a sort of modern update on Johnny Cash's man in black. But as "Grinderman" makes thrillingly clear, Cave is a real man, one who's painfully and angrily aware of his own mortality. A rawer and more stripped down affair than 2004's heavily orchestrated "Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus," "Grinderman" finds Cave, along with Jim Sclavunos on drums, Martyn P. Casey on bass and Warren Ellis on various stringed instruments, turning in 40 minutes of noisy, depraved rock that's steeped in sexual and social frustration. (Yep, Cave is about to turn 50.) There are a couple of quieter moments scattered throughout, but you can take the second track as representative: Chain-saw guitar rips into a wall of wild keyboard lines and a clanging drum part crashes away as Cave sneers lovesick lines like "I changed the sheets on my bed/ I combed the hairs across my head/ I sucked in my gut and still she said that she just didn't want to." It's called "No Pussy Blues."
Favorite track: "Get It On"
-- David Marchese