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A Nod and A Wink From Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst

By Shannon Zimmerman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page C01

At the tender age of 24, Bright Eyes ringleader Conor Oberst has the reputation of an artist twice his age. The kid has racked up miles of column inches over the past couple of years, with more than a few so-called critics racing to anoint the Nebraska native the latest in a long line of new Dylans.

That tag is usually the kiss of career death, but in some respects, it's apt: Oberst, the singer around whom rotates the band's ever-changing cast, is a good-looking Midwesterner whose gift of lyrical gab has wowed the East coast hipsterati. Fawning profiles of Bright Eyes have appeared in Rolling Stone and Blender, Oberst has opined on NPR, and the New York Times Magazine has gotten into the act, too, with an extremely favorable piece on Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst has released two CDs simultaneously: "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" and "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." (Saddle Creek Records)

Against that backdrop, Bright Eyes' latest project -- a pair of ambitious, simultaneously released CDs -- comes on like a conflicted response from an ambivalent lover -- or maybe just from an overextended young man who feels too hotly pursued at this stage of his career. Taken together, the albums seem paradoxically designed to ward off potential stalkers while shooting a come-hither glance in the direction of all the indie girls (and boys) who just wanna have fun.

"Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" is by far the more successful of the two, a slinky, percolating collection of tunes that marries Oberst's knack for luxurious melody-making to spastic beats that wouldn't sound out of place on a Devo disc.

But the album is more than just the latest entrant in the neo-New Wave sweepstakes. The mostly instrumental set-opener, "Time Code," sets the scene, with melancholy synth squiggles laced elegantly through noisy, echo-drenched drums. "Gold Mine Gutted" finds Oberst chasing "Don DeLillo whiskey" with a farewell to the "sorrowful Midwest" as his band whips up a chilly soundtrack that the Cure's Robert Smith could proudly call his own. And the disc's best bet, the hyper-catchy "Light Pollution," offers a toe-tapping ode to one Johnny Hobson, an apparent high school crony with a Marxist bent who loaned Oberst books and even got him "a subscription to the Socialist Review."

Still, if "Digital Ash" is an early contender for album of the year (and it is), its companion piece -- "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" -- feels dashed off, perhaps on purpose. It's a muddled, middling effort that gets by mainly on the strength of a scruffy, unrehearsed vibe -- not to mention some choice harmonies from the always fabulous Emmylou Harris. A handful of keepers are scattered among the disc's mostly folk-rocking tracks, but "At the Bottom of Everything" is typical: a bright acoustic strummer that never quite arrives -- lyrically or musically -- anyplace worth going.

On the evidence of his latest, then, here's the Bright Eyes bottom line: Oberst isn't quite yet a Dylanesque figure, but he is well on his way to becoming the new Smith, which is good news for everyone. With that particular alt-rock icon lately making like a nu-metalhead, that's a role that needs filling -- and fast.

Bright Eyes will perform Saturday at the 9:30 club.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company