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REAPPEARED ONES

It may have taken Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst a decade, but by last year, he had witnessed enough injustice to re-form his activist-minded, raw-sounding post-hardcore group Desaparecidos. That group, whose name translates to “disappeared ones” and references 30,000 Argentinians whom the country’s military dictatorship seemingly erased from existence in the ’70s and ’80s, only released one album in its first run, 2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish. But then they found inspiration for a new song in the anti-immigration screeds of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who works in that state’s Maricopa County. Last year, they released the song “MariKKKopa” about Arpaio, as one face of a double-A-sided single. Now, they’re returning, full of ire, with the single “Anonymous,” this time praising the Occupy movement with the declaration, “You can’t stop us/We are anonymous.” Them’s fightin’ words.

Tue., Feb. 26, 7 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 27, 7 p.m., 2013

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Conor Oberst+Ian Felice

From Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos to his latest work with the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst’s work has almost always been a solo vision. On this tour, however, he’s even announcing himself as such—so prepare for a diverse set list. Now past the point of using his angst-ridden shaky vocals as a crutch, Oberst can offer a little bit of everything: Expect endearing self-hatred, folk-driven political rants, alt-country crowd pleasers, hazy electro-pop, and as always, that emotional extremism we hate to love (and vice-versa).

Wed., Nov. 21, 8 p.m., 2012

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First Aid Kit Are Ladies of the Fjord

Hearing the high, lonesome harmonies of First Aid Kit brings to mind old-fashioned country starlets wearing Nudie suits with fringe cascading down the back and spangles up the front, dazzling under the beam of Opry stage lights. But in reality, these golden odes come from a barely post-teen sister duo, Swedes in woolen jumpers, ladies of the fjords doing a pitch-perfect proffer of lilting Laurel Canyon Americana.

Klara and Johanna Söderberg, 18 and 21 respectively, came to country through the back door, as tweens, and found it to be a “revelation.” “The first ‘country’ album we heard was Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in 2005. We stumbled upon the record through a recommendation of a friend,” Johanna says. “We felt at home; we’d found ‘our music.’ It was different from anything we’d ever heard before. It’s simple and sincere.” They read interviews with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and ferreted out records by artists who had influenced him—Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons—then kept digging until they hit that music’s original foundation: Bill Monroe, Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family.

“The backdoor kind of discovery might have been necessary, because at the time we found Bright Eyes, we’d probably have labeled a lot of the old-school traditional country as ‘too’ country,” explains Klara, who was all of 12 at the moment of collective conversion. Although both had been exposed to plenty of Shania and other pop-country of that era, they’d thought it cheesy, having been raised on an aural diet of Television, Patti Smith, and the Velvet Underground. Which isn’t to say they shunned the mainstream altogether: “Of course, we also listened to what other kids our age liked—Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Britney,” Klara adds.

First Aid Kit could have listed toward the radio pop the sisters loved, but writing country songs had an intractable pull. “There’s something direct and uncomplicated and pure,” Johanna says. “We discovered country could be about real, raw emotions.” “I’m a goddamn coward/But then again, so are you” they spit on the title track of their new album The Lion’s Roar (Wichita), their voices twinning and rising in an approximated Appalachian angst.

While writing together, the pair tended to hit on dark topics, which accounts for the bleakness and heavy melancholy at their songs’ edges. Roar is full of golden sunsets and dusty pledges of forever fealty (“I’ll be your Emmylou, I’ll be your June/If you’ll be my Gram, and my Johnny, too,” they sing on “Emmylou”) that mash together vintage Nashville with the pall of epic Nordic winters and the idle rootlessness of life on the road.

“A lot of our songs are about fears for the future, fears of living an empty, meaningless life,” Johanna explains. “While we’re generally quite happy people, we definitely experience that everyday tristesse. We’ve been touring constantly for the past three years and thus, spent a lot of time in our own little bubble, far away from friends and family. It’s like a warning to ourselves not to lose touch with the place where we come from.”

For the duo, the sadness and anger in their music is also just a matter of tradition. “We’re fascinated with the contrast between melancholy and cheerfulness that exists in vintage country,” Johanna says. “Lyrics speak of brutal loneliness and ugly heartbreak, while the music is light and beautiful. It adds another dimension to the music. It’s something we’ve been very inspired by, but it’s not something we’ve tried to imitate on purpose.”

“Some people overlook the sadness in our music and just listen to the harmonies and the arrangement,” Klara says. “The Lion’s Roar might sound like a happy record at times, but it’s pretty darn sad.”

First Aid Kit plays Webster Hall on Wednesday, March 28.

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Jarrod Gorbel

New York-based Gorbel used to play with post-Dashboard emo also-rans the Honorary Title; now he’s touring in support of a recent solo disc he recorded in L.A. with Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley. The vibe? Tom Petty meets Bright Eyes. With Hurricane Bells and Kaiser Cartel.

Fri., Jan. 28, 9 p.m., 2011

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MYSTIC RIVER

Conor Oberst, the pubescent brains behind Bright Eyes—that mopey wunderkind who had every teenager’s mother asking, “Are you sure you’re not depressed?”—is all grown up now, ditching his misery for a more laid-back sound on 2009’s Outer South. Oberst’s singing has become especially relaxed, even comfortable—a far cry from the wailing screams of Bright Eyes. The songwriting, though still scathing, possesses the off-handedness of an inside joke rather than the discomfort of an angst-filled projection. On “Nikorette,” when Oberst asks, “Will you talk me down if I get upset?” you can almost smell the shit-grin on his face. Discontent may have been the guiding light of Bright Eyes, but with the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst finally sounds like he’s having fun. With Jenny Lewis.

Sat., July 4, 3:30 p.m., 2009

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BRIGHT FUTURE

Considering the unabashed soul-shredding he does as frontwaif of Bright Eyes, it hardly seemed unreasonable to fear that Conor Oberst‘s recent self-titled solo disc would take the shape of an extra-large pool of navel-gazing diary drool. In fact, the dozen tunes on Conor Oberst—recorded earlier this year in Mexico with a Bright Eyes–like group dubbed the Mystic Valley Band—are among the singer-songwriter’s most assured; it’s almost startling to hear someone Oberst’s age making such effective use of ideas as seemingly worn out as those in “Lenders in the Temple.” Tonight, expect material from the solo album, as well as selections from the expansive Bright Eyes catalog. Opener Ben Kweller has a country record due out in January called Changing Horses. With Rig 1.

Nov. 8-9, 8 p.m., 2008

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Marathon Men

It was about 1:30 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning in the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, just as the first movement of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was reaching a tentative crescendo, when some poor sap accidentally kicked a glass bottle down the stairs, temporarily hijacking the 26-hour Bang on a Can Marathon.

While the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ six-piece ensemble emoted with a mournful piano backed by cello, stand-up bass, vibes, guitar, and keyboard, suddenly you heard an anticipatory yelp of horror, followed by a few bounces down the marble steps (plink, plink), and a final, obliterating plisssh. Soon another instrument joined the fray—the crack of a security dude’s walkie-talkie. Thus is the peril of playing ambient music live.

The music was often fascinating: Percussionist Steven Schick had played a noisy piece titled The Anvil Chorus—featuring four hubcaps, five kick-drums of varying size, and a healthy clutch of pipes and blocks—on those steps just an hour earlier. But the crowd is the real attraction at the two-decade-old annual marathon thrown by Bang on a Can, which fields touring ensembles, commissions new works, and sires gala events like this one. Appropriately, the Winter Garden resembles an extravagant airport, with the giant greenhouse sunroof and goofy palm trees towering overhead, and folks sleeping in their clothes—some with enough gear to qualify as luggage—on the floor, in corners, on the steps. Several hundred people, awake or not, had gathered for the live resurrection of Eno’s 1978 elegant lullaby; a few big shots (Yo La Tengo, Dälek, the Books) were on the Marathon’s bill (running from 8 p.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday), but the main attractions were the compositions themselves, and Airports was the highlight. Verily, it was beautiful, and best enjoyed while lying flat on your back and staring straight up, through the palm trees and the sunroof to the deep night outside, with the neighboring, towering buildings overhead appearing to curve inward around you as breathy keyboards slowly gave way to meandering clarinet.

My goal was to stay till sunrise—I came close. Argentinian loop-folk sorceress Juana Molina makes excellent Music to Try to Fall Asleep To. The Hartt Bass Band—a pianist, a percussionist pounding on a wood block with mallets, and eight double-bassists—wailed away for a while. Steven Schick showed up twice more, leading his collective red fish blue fish, and then taking another solo turn with a siren-esque hand-cranked instrument that appropriately resembled a coffee grinder. But by the time the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, which rolled here all the way from Michigan, was artfully bashing through Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, it was time to bail. I staggered outside at 5:30 a.m. or so, just in time to witness a gentleman demurely urinating into the Hudson River. I’m wide awake; it’s morning.

(Sweet transition ahead.)

“I’m wide awake—it’s morning!” Conor Oberst screamed, at the violent and hilarious conclusion to Bright Eyes’ seven-day Town Hall run, beating “Road to Joy” into oblivion with, like, 50 people onstage in rumbling atonal freak-out mode, masturbatory but still highly amusing, polishing knobs on the Titanic. Resplendent in a sharp white suit and shoulder-length Southern-rock hair, Conor thrashed about, joining bluegrass badass David Rawlings in smashing a foot-high toy piano into smithereens, and tearing the lovely bouquet tied to his microphone stand apart so as to angrily fling flowers into the crowd.

Thanks for the metaphors, Conor.

Finally, Friday night’s show felt like the Cathartic Event we’d hoped for. All week we’d read the breathless reports on the first six shows, each with its own super- to somewhat-famous special guest. Lou Reed! Norah Jones! Jenny Lewis! Steve Earle! Ben Gibbard! (Does Ben Gibbard’s name with an exclamation point after it feel strange to anyone else?!) This being the final night, the electrifying conclusion, certainly Conor would’ve saved his best surprise for last! Who could it be? Bowie? Springsteen? Dylan? Jesus?

Ladies and gentlemen, Ron Sexsmith!

You could almost hear the loser Price Is Right music playing, even through the very polite applause. Poor Ron. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s a fine, underappreciated dude, the Canadian Roy Orbison, perhaps the archetypical to-know-him-is-to-love-him singer-songwriter. And his four-song set, splitting the nearly two-hour affair neatly in half, was lovely, his subtly booming voice better suited to Town Hall’s expert acoustics than Conor’s much improved but still reliably wobbly moans. “Foolproof” was especially splendid, slow, and stately, Ron augmented by lovely piano and trumpet as Conor looked on very, very, very earnestly and lovingly, a conspicuous way to instruct the crowd to do the same.

Supplying the piano and trumpet was no fucking problem. Conor’s 12-strong backing band—themselves resplendent in all white—included a six-piece string section (totally unnecessary) and two drummers (very necessary, given that the dominant half was Sleater-Kinney luminary Janet Weiss, who pounded through allegedly raucous rockers and occasionally flaccid ballads alike with a mesmerizing nonchalance). We’re living in the age of vaguely indie-signifying bands wielding enormous power—giant venues, multi-night residencies, overstuffed ensembles. From Sufjan Stevens to the National to the Arcade Fire, it’s the age of glorious excess, and only rarely was Bright Eyes’ contribution overwhelmingly overblown.

Sure, the string section was ridiculous— “Four Winds,” the catchiest and most propulsive of the ELO-meets-Wilco rock tunes Conor’s recently favored, benefited tremendously when the orchestra consisted solely of adorable violinist Anton Patzner, happily sawing away. But most other tunes on Bright Eyes’ new Cassadaga came off equally well, especially “Make a Plan to Love Me,” a gooey ballad with a nonetheless gorgeous bridge, Janet expertly pitching in on the bah-bah-bah harmonies. Over the course of his nearly decade-long cultural ascent, Conor’s unleashed a few terrible and shrill debacles (“When the President Talks to God” being the worst song of the past five years), but none of those crashed this party, where only “Lime Tree” was a true dud, and that merely due to dullness. (Incidentally, during “Lime Tree,” Conor was engulfed in Pentecostal candlelight projected on the back wall, and by an actual candle, even. Up in the balcony sat a dude with an overhead projector who handled all the visuals manually, dumping food coloring into a glass of water and blowing into it with a straw, making live-action crayon drawings with a little kid, busting out an Etch A Sketch, etc. A very pleasing analog approach.)

The whole show teetered on the edge of pompous, overserious self-absorption, but lighthearted stuff like that helped Conor’s cause tremendously. As did the rumbling atonal freak-out finale, bodies and tambourines and violin bows flying everywhere. Janet was almost impaled by a keytar. Spoon’s Britt Daniel—another special guest, yes, but only for a rushed and weak two-song encore—stood in a far corner, impassively tapping on a tambourine. And though Conor’s flower-whipping, piano-smashing tirade was the focal point, the true epicenter was bluegrass queen Gillian Welch, who along with piano-smashing accomplice David Rawlings served as our opening act. (“Throw Me a Rope,” hopefully bound for her next album, is a haunting and mellow monster.) Gillian’s stage presence is, to put it mildly, a great deal calmer and quieter than Conor’s, but she did her best to fit in during the finale, hopping around nervously in her red dress and whacking a pair of conga drums quasi-rhythmically. She looked hilarious. She’d also just played an hour-long set at a sizable Times Square venue for seven straight days. Conor wields his tremendous power awkwardly at times, but his heart’s in the right place, and everyone in Town Hall was in the right place too.

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Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

All right, Conor Oberst. White flag. You win. With your hair all long now and those convincingly repentant songs about snorting dope, digging Satan, and conquering starlets, we give.
Cassadaga, the ambitious mess that is Bright Eyes’ fifth record, finds darling Conor finally resembling a gen-u-ine “recording artist.” It’s a big deal: More than mere license to loft the mini-fridge through the hotel window or indulge a coke-high hankering for rock ‘n’ roll oboe, it’s a distinction rarely bestowed on the argyle sweater set. Even if it doesn’t give credence to the chorus who crowed about Conor being The New Dylan all those years, the big risks, big rewards, and occasional disasters within Cassadaga make it the real deal.

It’s not because the record is flawless— far from it, what with the abundant razor-to-wrist earnestness and bloated aggrandizing. The phone-recorded psychobabble opener “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” announces the record’s metaphysical theme with the subtlety of a
carnival gypsy.The swaggering chutzpah of “Soul Singer in a Session Band” recalls the rhinestone portentousness of Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” And what’s up with “No One Would Riot for Less” nicking post-Waters Pink Floyd? Or the Peter Gabriel–inspired tour of Middle Eastern exotica on “Coat Check Dream Song?” Shit, if nearly half of it wasn’t such a drag,
Cassadaga would be amazing.

But redemption? Start with the high-harmonizing, floor-stomping chorus of “Four Winds”—a rare instance where fiddle (singular) is chosen over violins (plural), while Conor screams about the devil and Babylon while indiscriminately name-checking a Joan Didion book. Weirdly, it still works, and so does “Hot Knives,” a hard-swinging shuffle about “hot knives on a dance floor” (whatever that means). “Classic Cars” is so confident in its construction that wonky sentiments about lying “beside her in a bed made for a queen” and getting “out of California” get a pass. And comparatively easygoing Americana tunes like “Middleman” and “I Must Belong Somewhere” show off Conor’s prodigious gifts as a songwriter. At its core, that’s where Cassadaga succeeds—via moments so brilliant we’re blind to the duds. Anyone with a few Dylan or Diamond records certainly knows the feeling.

Bright Eyes plays Town Hall May 25 through June 1, with no show the 27th, the-townhall-nyc.org.

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Tom Thumb’s Blues

No one yelled “Judas” at Conor Oberst last Wednesday night at Town Hall, but the Bright Eyes frontman was definitely under assault. At any moment when he wasn’t hurling words at the room, Oberst’s fans were hurling words back at him—everything from “I love you, Conor!” to “Lick my balls.” Like the folk-music watchdogs who couldn’t hang with Bob Dylan’s electric guitar, these young people—and nearly every seat was filled by someone who likely became an underage drinker right around the time the 24-year-old Oberst did—were figuring out how to accept their hero’s ascent to his current pop-cultural roost. He had been theirs; now his ass belonged to Wal-Mart.

Oberst hardly appeared up to the job. A small guy by any standards, he looked positively tiny onstage, even surrounded by six sympathetic bandmates; wracked by a cough that only increased his Dickensian street-urchin steez, he handled the glare by keeping his head down and his grip on a Rolling Rock. Except for when he sang. Then indie’s Little Man Tate focused all the misplaced energy in the room into a single beam of seething folk-rock intensity. Seriously: However powerful you think the songs are on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, they sound like demos compared to their wide-awaker live versions. It’s how you know Oberst has become a folk singer.

Which is why his love songs sort of sucked. All recycled twentysomething anxiety and plainly disingenuous self-loathing, they’re hard to take in a darkened bar, let alone in front of a bunch of immature guys who scarcely need the encouragement. But when Oberst sings about America now—about making love to a televised war and the president talking to God—he taps into something fierce and vital and true. At Town Hall he kept things at a steady boil until the end of his set, when catharsis finally came with a “Road to Joy” that sounded like “Paint It Black.” It’s the last thing the kid needs, but as he smashed his guitar it was impossible not to think about another sad-eyed lady of the lowlands: Kurt Cobain.

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Full-Time Omaha Young People and Their Tap Dancer Get Sex Wild

Tilly and the Wall are full-time, professional young people. They’re Dawson’s Creek as a band: Omaha pals of the Bright Eyes crew, armed to the teeth with the kind of youth it takes to sing pretty songs about “singing pretty songs about love.” (They’ve also got a tap dancer instead of a drummer, which is a better idea than you’d think.) Most of their songs are concerned with how intensely they feel everything—first-person-plural manifestos about love and action and stuff. “Let’s get wild, wild, wild,” they whoop. “Let’s rejoice. I wanna hear that fucking noise.”

What youth youth youth and wild wild wild mostly translate to here is sex sex sex and its attendant confusion. The voices of one boy and two girls grope nervously at each other, either in unison or on totally different pages at least as often as they’re actually in harmony. They chop at their instruments and stomp on the floor, custom-trimming Shania melodies and Madonna lyrics they’ve heard on the radio into homemade hymns to universal making out. And the speaking-for-the-fake-ID-generation act is a lot less grating than it might be, mostly because they sound like they actually are high on hormones.