Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Conor Oberst

The photo adorning Conor Oberst's new album captures the Bright Eyes bleater sprawled in a hammock, clad in white linen. Slouching towards Margaritaville? Not quite, but the 28-year-old singer is moving away from the melodramatic warble that defined his work as Bright Eyes. He's gone off in search of easier, breezier songscapes, emulating country-rock nomads of yore: the Grateful Dead and the Traveling Wilburys. From the jaunty "Moab" to the rollicking "I Don't Want to Die (in the Hospital)," this album is brimming with travelogues and escape fantasies.

The former tune serves as Oberst's thesis statement. Over shimmering chords he proclaims, "There's nothing that the road cannot heal." It's the most declarative statement on this disc -- which says a lot coming from a dude who's made his name with emotive tirades against unrequited love and the Bush administration. On "NYC -- Gone, Gone," he sounds almost giddy about the prospect of leaving the Big Apple for Mexico (which, not so coincidentally, is where these tunes were recorded).

While Oberst searches the blacktop for salvation, his most evocative lyrics lead to water. "Get-Well-Cards" describes warm Gulf currents, "Lenders in the Temple" depicts redemptive rain showers, and the chorus of "Cape Canaveral" conjures a waterfall pouring "crazy symbols of my destiny." With Bright Eyes, Oberst's vocal exorcisms often felt like muddy torrents of confused syllables. Here, his words flow like a summer river, even and cool.

-- Chris Richards

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Cape Canaveral," "Lenders in the Temple," "Moab"


Jamey Johnson

According to singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson's official bio, he grew up near Montgomery, Ala.; rebelled against a religious upbringing by drinking beer and singing at Hank Williams's grave; joined the Marine Corps Reserve in the '90s; got out before his unit shipped to Iraq eight years later; moved to Nashville; and co-wrote hit songs like Trace Adkins's "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" before going solo. His second album more or less tells that same story, only bleaker, beginning with a pot-smoking teenager in "that Southern Baptist parking lot," ambling through a long stretch of loneliness and ending up with a country music career "Between Jennings and Jones."

The deep-voiced Johnson has that sad-eyed, straight-talking, storytelling quality that turned Waylon Jennings and George Jones into superstars. "Mowin' Down the Roses" seems upbeat on paper, but the lyrical punch line is "that you planted in our yard." "The Door Is Always Open" riffs on a common country theme, asking for a woman's consideration if her man turns out rotten, but it has an unexpected dark side: "When he reaches out to touch you, is your face turned to the wall?"

The not-quite-country, not-quite-rock feel in Johnson's backup band matches the dryness in his voice and lyrics. Curly steel guitars float through "Angel," finally trailing off as if determined to deny listeners crucial bits of closure. The sharp electric guitars at the beginning of "Mowin' Down the Roses" initially recall Dire Straits' goofy "Money for Nothing," but by the end they're conjuring up Lucinda Williams's no-hope "Changed the Locks." Johnson may know how to make big, slick Nashville hits for other people, but behind the curtain is a sad little poet who spits tumbleweed into every syllable.

-- Steve Knopper

DOWNLOAD THESE:"High Cost of Living," "Mary Go Round," "Angel"

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