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RADIO DAYS

With the death of East Village Radio this year, there has never been a better time to support local radio stations. WFUV, noncommercial and operating out of Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx since 1947, makes it very easy. Their annual Holiday Cheer for WFUV benefit concert, 10 years strong, continues its tradition of consistently excellent lineups; this year is headlined by Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes — and his own solo — fame. Various-degrees-of-folk artists Natalie Merchant, the Felice Brothers, Suzanne Vega, Laura Marling, the Lone Bellow, and Jonathan Wilson — whose accolades and critical acclaim spill over the space we have to recount them — join Oberst at the picturesque Beacon Theater to celebrate the holiday season and WFUV’s legacy of music plus personality.

Mon., Dec. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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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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Bright Eyes

You wanted a hit? Well, The People’s Key is Bright Eyes‘ most straightforward, nose-to-grindstone rock album yet, and just in time to be a rollicking swan song, as scarily prolific mastermind Conor Oberst has maintained it will be the last for the group (Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nathaniel Walcot). (He hasn’t said much to corroborate it lately, though; all theories welcome, with bonus points for Winona conspiracies.) The album’s pretty Hitler-obsessed, but even that bleak cloud can’t numb the gorgeous emotional resonance of wafting psychedelia number “Haile Selassie” and triumphant banner-waver “Jejune Stars.” Even if you’ve disparaged emo-rock before, don’t close the door without opening this window first.

Tue., March 8, 8 p.m.; Wed., March 9, 8 p.m., 2011

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A HEARTBEAT AWAY

Sondre Lerche is, of course, best known for his elegant soundtrack to the Steve Carell film Dan in Real Life. Just kidding, no one saw that. He’s more like Norway’s younger, more palatable Conor Oberst—a wintry pop prodigy obsessed with the Beach Boys and a-ha, who released his first album at age 18 and has remained prolific enough in the eight years since to make Sweden’s Jens Lekman quite nervous and thus continue the ancient intra-Scandinavian rivalry for all eternity. September’s Heartbeat Radio sounds as much a diversion as his past forays into jazz (2006’s Duper Sessions) and straight-arrow rock (2007’s Phantom Punch); Heartbeat Radio‘s title track whips strings aplenty into wide, twangy country-pop, while “Good Luck” hints at a winsome new frankness in his lyrics. Carry on, young Viking.

Tue., Sept. 8, 8 p.m., 2009

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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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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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Chumps with Chops

Onstage in March at Coda—a red-velvet and gold-chandelier midtown joint that looks like it could’ve hosted an open-mic night in Reality Bites—17-year-old singer-actor Teddy Geiger allowed the guitarist in his four-piece band to take a solo. More remarkably, the usually solo-averse crowd of junior high girls and the Carson Daly look-alikes who prey upon them accepted the distraction, maybe because it was no distraction at all: Geiger embodies ‘tweenpop’s quick maturation from putatively content-free entertainment to serious chops-enabled pursuit. A Conor Oberst for the MySpace set, Geiger strums his acoustic and plinks his piano to show his fans that, notwithstanding their shared producer, he’s no Backstreet Boy. And yet, at its best, Underage Thinking—part of a would-be Geiger geyser alongside his recurring role on January’s immediately canceled TV show flop Love Monkey—isn’t the self-serious buzzkill the genre’s development seems to portend. Lead single “For You I Will (Confidence)” works up a post-adolescent sweat despite its awkward 6/8 swing, Geiger likening a high-stakes meet-cute to doing a cannonball into his parents’ Olympic-size swimming pool. Later, in the tellingly titled “Look Where We Are Now,” he gets in touch with the petulant teenager within, bellowing “I just wanna hang out with my friends,” perhaps in the direction of his nagging management team. Four Denver dudes currently upgrading from AAA radio to Top 40, the Fray skew slightly older than Geiger: I keep failing to detect the difference between How to Save a Life‘s title track and Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” But they do a similarly good job of preventing their blithely melodic folk-pop from turning into the post-Train mush it obviously wants to be. Credit singer Isaac Slade’s memory of Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” still the gold standard for this kind of stuff. In “Over My Head (Cable Car),” he keeps the piano solo short and sweet—just like his audience’s attention span.


The Fray play Webster Hall May 23.

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Ratty Cool

On Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC hospital drama about professionally and personally harried young surgery interns, life unfolds to new new wave. The series is set in a dank, woolly, feelings-mad Seattle that the script hypes over the Law and Order objectivity of New York. The possibility that anyone on the show hears—or even knows—Black Sabbath or Stravinsky usually appears remote. Instead, the Grey’s people eat and fight and work and sleep to smartly refurbished U.S. songs faithful to the original late-’70s/early-’80s new wave’s slurpy hooks and big rides. The cornerstone stylistic reference is the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” uncut 2003 synthpop bold enough to start a movement.

On the show it does, what with tunes such as Maria Taylor’s “Song Beneath the Song,” where she (one-half of the duo Azure Ray) and Conor Oberst mate the rare subgenre of indie-soul to Heaven 17 and insist, throughout a sweet tune about subtext, that what they’re singing about is “not a love song.” In fact, as the Grey’s Anatomy: Original Soundtrack collection proves, most of the show’s new new wave songs are love songs, even though they emerge as professionally and personally harried as the series’ young surgery interns themselves.

When, voicing cocked emotions worthy of X-Ray Spex, Tegan and Sara demand, “Look me in the eye/And tell me you don’t find me attractive” in their genius “Where Does the Good Go,” the narrative and tonal bleed into the show’s docs talking in the halls about last night’s mercy sex is exact. And when Psaap do “Cosy in the Rocket” (the show’s glam theme music), mixing rainwear existentialism and Duran Duran programming, you hear possibly the sharpest marriage of pop and TV ever. Or is it a blueprint for a new nationwide radio format? Probably not. The Grey’s Anatomy tunes—again, exactly like the docs on the show—seem so gone on their own slightly ratty cool that pursuing real superstardom would be moot.

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Holiday Fear

As a guilt-ridden ex-Catholic Italian American I’d always hoped to qualify for honorary Jew status. Alas, friend and writer Rob Levine, a/k/a Super Jew, says I’m not neurotic enough, to which I say, “Oy vey.”

In an attempt to ratchet up honorary Jew points, I went to the Jewcy show last Sunday at Crobar. It was a benefit for Natan, of which Triumph the Insult Comic Dog said, “I went to the website and still have no idea what they do.”

Out of an all-star cool Jew lineup including Saturday Night Live‘s
Rachel Dratch, Princess Superstar, Jackie Hoffman, and Perry Farrell, the puppet dog was the best. He was totally rude and insensitive, and we loved every second of it. He sniffed at the show’s lineup (“Come on—these are the best Jews you can get?”) and dissed upcoming performer Perry Farrell’s new religion (“Kabbalah—that’s one more reason to think the Jews are insane”).

Farrell performed a prayer that Super Jew advised is not spellable in English: “You can spell it however you want, really.” (It was “Avenu Malkenu.”) Then Farrell sang “Jane Says,” and it made me more than a little verklempt. I actually cried. Super Jew: “Were you crying for the state of Perry Farrell’s career?” No, I was crying for my long lost youth when Jane’s Addiction was popular, and because the song about a heroin addict is sad and moving. (And really inappropriate for a festive holiday performance.) The crowd didn’t care and sang along, happy and drunk.

Even the police get in on the holiday spirit in their own Scrooge-like way. Last Saturday, the cops ticketed Scenic on Avenue B for operating a disorderly premises. Cops roving Avenue B are now commonplace, but I have a better idea: Why don’t they just stand on the corner and beat their chests like King Kong? That might actually be more effective than whatever it is they are doing now.

What was so disorderly at Scenic? No, not a fistfight that spilled onto the street. Just 150 Santas leaving the club, at the tail end of their infamous SantaCon city crawl. They hit Scenic at 10, and left around 11:30. You know how hard it is to get six or seven of your friends ready to leave one place to go to another? Imagine 150 friends, and imagine if they were wearing Santa suits, and imagine if they’d been drinking since 10 a.m. Now imagine the sidewalk outside Scenic. It’s enough to make you go, “Ho ho ho.” A spy tells me that police told him that three Avenue B residents who have 311 on redial are the source of “all” the complaints.

And I spoke too soon last week about Pacha uptown. The police visited for a routine inspection last Friday night, but because police inspections are so disruptive (like certain creepy guys, the police like to do it with the lights on and the music off), club management claims they closed the venue early of their own volition. Apparently, the New York Post‘s report about the police responding to an overdose was erroneous; my source says cops only saw the visibly intoxicated woman after entering the premises for the inspection, and that the woman was taken to a hospital and released a half-hour later. Rumor has it that the woman was later seen partying at another club. Pacha opened the next night—and remains open. Pacha is on Santa’s nice list, after all.

Funniest thing I missed at the Vice holiday party at Fat Baby last Monday: When Conor Oberst was rumored to be denied entrance because he was already too tipsy and didn’t have ID, Vice staffer Eddy Moretti
cut the music and shouted, “They’re not letting my friend Conor of
Bright Eyes
in. Let’s take this party somewhere else!” The crowd chanted “Bullshit!” but the DJ turned the music back on. In the end, Oberst had already left, and everyone, including the “protester,” stayed.

Ho, ho, ho.