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'Outer South' by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

Right on schedule, Conor Oberst has hit his "Basement Tapes" phase. After releasing a career's worth of gut-wrenching indie-folk albums as Bright Eyes before he has even turned 30, the former poster boy for adolescent angst and shivering vocals just wants to jam with his bros. There's a freewheeling, it's-all-good vibe that permeates "Outer South," as Oberst lets his various bandmates take the spotlight on nearly half of the 16 Americana-tinged songs. He's likely just trying to be a solid dude, but the decision to go democratic serves more as a subtle reminder that maybe we shouldn't take the hyperprolific Oberst's talent for granted.

As Oberst has mellowed and become more confident, he's lost a bit of that anxious edge that made him equally intriguing and grating. He's not nearly at his strongest here but even his most run-of-the-mill compositions are crafted with care. His pop smarts are on display in the bouncy, organ-fueled "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)" while the stark, acoustic "White Shoes" proves that he's still at his best when he's at his most vulnerable. The far-left ranting of the grungy "Roosevelt Room" might make even Billy Bragg blush, but Oberst throws himself so completely into the performance that it's hard not to be won over.

If an Oberst throwaway still has some charms, the same can't be said for his bandmates' contributions, which are all throwaways except for Nik Freitas's appealing desert shuffle, "Big Black Nothing." Jason Boesel's "The Difference Is Time" should serve as the soundtrack to a public service announcement explaining why drummers should never, ever be handed the songwriting reins.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)," "Big Black Nothing," "White Shoes"

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