Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band @ The Turner Hall Ballr
Oct. 30, 2008
Since his last album with Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has been hacking at his songs with a sandblaster, polishing out some of the grit and unevenness, but also stripping them of the very character that made them captivating. His new self-titled solo album completes this dull reboot, replacing Oberst's once-signature quaver with a tempered moan, his cathartic autobiographical lyrics with bland philosophical musings, and his free-flowing arrangements with standard-issue country rock. The result is a flat album, easygoing to the point of barely being there.
Yet Oberst's snappy concert last Thursday at the Turner Hall Ballroom suggested that, like Charlie Brown's humble Christmas tree, maybe all that his latest batch of songs needs is a little love. Using electric guitars as defibrillators, Oberst's five-piece Mystic Valley Band, so impotent on record, injected much-needed life into Conor Oberst's modest jingles. With the precision of an arena-rock group and the eagerness of a bar band, they made these songs crash and soar, filling any available crevice with vibrant flourishes.
Of course, it helped that Oberst was equally intent on delivering a rock show. Abandoning his newfound studio cautiousness, he embraced his boyish vocal tics, strangling his S's, choking on his consonants, sneering verses and barking out choruses. He captured the lurid thrills of vintage Bright Eyes, but with a sobriety and professionalism Bright Eyes was never known for.
Three of Oberst's band mates rang in the encore by each singing a song of their own. None of them are particular talents-Taylor Hollingsworth sings nasally garage-pop, Nik Freitas does an unmemorable Lou Reed impression and Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel doesn't have the presence to sell his genial compositions-but like Oberst, they benefited from the Mystic Valley Band's collective might. Oberst has formed an ensemble able to ignite even the most innocuous material.