I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Were Conor Oberst modest in his ambition, he'd be at the top of his game right now. As Bright Eyes, he's solidified the devotion of a young legion of fans who have long embraced him as the sensitive soul who magically crafts their inner LiveJournal entries into song; their support has pushed him to the zenith of the indie-acclaim pile. But 24-year-old Oberst is crying out for more, and his new pair of simultaneously released CDs are the twin tears that roll down his pale cheeks. Poised on the verge of a major career breakthrough, Oberst will spend the year touring midsize seated theaters, flirting with the mainstream media's desire to hail a "poet of a generation" with his bashful, mumbled charm, and—mark my words—appearing live at the Bait Shop before the season finale of The O.C.
Given that on 2002's Lifted, Oberst yelped, indulged in spoken-word rants, and occasionally crammed overlong narratives into songs, it's significant that I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is Bright Eyes' tightest album yet. A concise, tuneful collection of mainly acoustic tracks, Wide Awake plays as if in direct response to criticism that Lifted was too ragged and insular. Some preciousness remains (the stammering intro to "At the Bottom of Everything"), but Oberst's decision to get out of the way of his own songs highlights the durability of his writing. His voice may shudder, but he makes sure his tunes stick in your head, not his tics.
The messy Goofus to Wide Awake's Gallant, Digital Ash is scattershot and sonically diffuse. The songs themselves don't differ significantly from Wide Awake's—almost any one of these tracks could be stripped of their digital affectations to fit snugly on the acoustic album. Instead, Oberst takes Bright Eyes songs and plays dress-up, adding distorted drum patterns, crunchy guitars, and keyboard loops—in short, plenty of background noise for him to freak out over. From just-let-the-tape-roll heavy breathing to obsessive-compulsive word repetition, this is where Lifted's howls and hiccups have evolved. Oberst sounds ecstatic as he adds cathartic vocal tantrums onto the songs' noisy layers.
It's tempting to call the sometimes difficult Digital Ash Oberst's secret-code love letter to the faithful and the palatable Wide Awake his rose with which to woo new fans. It's also possible that Digital Ash's self-consciously contemporary indie sound will follow the mainstream successes of the Postal Service and Modest Mouse, while the lyrics-based Wide Awake remains the possession of longtime fanatics. It's even more likely that Oberst wants everyone to like both. His willingness—and ability—to split his musical personality attests to the scale of his ambition. He'll reunite the halves when he's at the top of his game. CHRIS LORRAINE
Bright Eyes plays the Paramount Theatre with Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter and Neva Divona at 8 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 17. $21 adv./$25.
It's just ridiculous that Bettie Serveert are still here for indie kids to kick around in 2005. At least their singer, Carol Van Dyk, seems to think so. She's an expert at playfully glancing off lyrical justifications for the feckless meanders of alt-rock's onetime most-likelies. "Don't give up on me" are the first words of her mouth; a cut later, she's "Stuck in a rut/In a very tight place." How could indie kids respond except to kick harder? Adam Moerder's comparison at Web 'zine Pitchfork of Van Dyk's performance to "a thirtysomething woman trying to squeeze into her prom dress" is certainly in the site's fine tradition of being skeeved out by any woman old enough to rent a car. And ewww, Van Dyk even has, like, sex—though she has to borrow a Bright Eyes tune to get lucky, the distance her vocal negotiates on "Lover I Don't Have to Love" adds a depth of misery unbeknownst to Conor Oberst's callow wallow. Having overcompensated for 2000's carefully orchestrated Private Suit with the woolly showcase for Peter Visser's curlicue guitar graffiti that was 2002's Code 22, the Betties have settled somewhere in the middle, adorning loose but concise songs with perfunctory "Middle Eastern" strings (à la Britney or Linkin Park) and electronic burbles that hardly seem worth mentioning at this historical juncture. Working without a map? That's them for sure. But odds are the band's still fumbling gracefully toward rewarding epiphanies when the record store clerk who sneers at you for bringing Attagirl to the counter is a divorced accountant nursing his third ulcer and second mortgage. KEITH HARRIS
Bettie Serveert play Crocodile Cafe with Slender Means and Viva Voce at 8 p.m. Tues., Feb. 22. $12 adv./$15.
THE PLOT TO BLOW UP THE EIFFEL TOWER
Love in the Fascist Brothel
(Three One G)
The first album by San Diego's the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, Dissertation, Honey, is a relentless thing, at times sounding not unlike like the Blood Brothers executing something more in the vein of Nation of Ulysses' Plays Pretty for Baby. When it does pause for breath, lounged-out jazzy sections sweep in, only to jump back into horn freak-outs which in turn brawl against punishing hardcore sections. It all makes sense, somehow. Love in the Fascist Brothel finds those strains still evident, if more tightly integrated and coherent. What were once more obvious traces of jazz have been plowed over by the angry beast that is the band's ever-evolving sound—see the volatile transition between "Angry, Young, and Rich" and "Lipstick SS," where a stray piano salvo flirts with a squall of feedback until both run headlong into monolithic guitar/bass stampede. Syncopated hi-hat strafing and jittery high-end note-tickling parts recall, at times, Arab on Radar's better moments ("SLC Hunks"). Brandon Welchez's frantic sax occasionally pipes up to keep things frenzied, and his and Kelly Kotner's dual vocals flaunt swagger and vitriol simultaneously. Frequently, Fascist Brothel lands in untraveled territory; it's hard to see them not confidently forging ahead with the sound, maybe next time in an entirely new direction. And at this show, which aural clusterfuck barragers the Locust headline, bodies will fly. GRANT BRISSEY
The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower play Neumo's with the Locust, Ex-Models, and Upsilon Acrux at 7 p.m. Sun., Feb. 20. $10 adv.
Live From the Morning Alternative
(The End/VERA Project)
This collection of 19 live and in-studio tracks from local bands (ranging from the Presidents of the United States of America to mesmerizing teenage thrash- poppers Idiot Pilot) is a benefit album for the VERA Project, which has been organizing all-ages rock shows across town since 2000. It's also evidence of how far the End (KNDD 107.7 FM) has come; last year, the radio station underwent a format change, trading rap-metal and mainstream hardcore for alternative rock, and becoming a serious local-music cheerleader in the process. The highlight of Live is Idiot Pilot's "To Buy a Gun," a pseudo-mash-up that pulsates like recent Radiohead, then explodes into nü-metal screaming. Adding star power are the Presidents, whose dialed-down acoustic version of "Lump" is a trade-off: You finally understand the loony lyrics, but you miss the chaotic loudness. As with these two tracks, Live is at its best when colliding—and even finding similarities between—supposed opposites. Visqueen's "A Viewing" showcases the chalky directness of Rachel Flotard's vocals over now-departed bassist Kim Warnick's roiling low end, all while telling a story ("They never knew you were suicidal/You tried a hundred dresses on/But you're not feeling all that bridal"). That track's fury seems worlds away from Damien Jurado's calm folk ballad "Ohio," yet both songs are about the distance between what we have and what we want ("Out from my window, please hear me, Ohio/Your daughter wants to come home"). An appropriate theme, since this record represents two important local music powers closing the distance between them to make something worth wanting. NEAL SCHINDLER
MARSHALL TUCKER BAND
Anthology: The First 30 Years
Thirty-two years after it was first released, the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See" still sounds like it took less time to write than to play the flute solo. ("Gonna take that freight, as far as it can go . . . to Georgia"—all the way from South Carolina!) Country-rock flute solos are just spiteful, but there are better songs on this two-disc collection. I was going to just send in the lyrics of "Ballad of MTB" (from 1990's Southern Spirit, not included here), without comment, as a "concept review," but some of the assertions in the lyrics are questionable, such as, "Spent most of their time writin' songs 'bout Caroline." The titles "Silverado," "Cattle Drive," and "Last of the Singing Cowboys" are far more suggestive of Wyoming. (That lyric sounds more like Gino Vanelli, anyway—and he had the excuse of starting from Montreal.) There's also "Windy City Blues" and "Texas on My Mind," and the singing traverses Kansas to Boston via Hartsfield. (I prefer Black Oak Arkansas.) Other songs include "Stay in the Country" and "Where a Country Boy Belongs," and like being in the country, MTB's music forces you to focus on small details. Guitarist Toy Caldwell, who died in 1993, played using his thumb for a pick, so he sounded different from Jerry Garcia, who was missing a finger. (Wonder how Blues for Allah is selling in the red states? Then again, that title could cut both ways.) But MTB continue, and the second half of Anthology 2: The First 60 Years should include more straightforward genre experts like the last two-thirds of their career: The straight country is good, the blues are very well rehearsed. And "marshalltucker" would make a great "blip" word for radio edits. DAVE QUEEN