CASSADAGA by bright eyes

by Gordon

Pitchfork: 6.0            Rolling Stone: 4/5            Metacritic: 78            Spin: 4/5


Released: April 2007
  1. Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)
  2. Four Winds [LISTEN]

  3. If the Brakeman Turns My Way
  4. Hot Knives
  5. Make a Plan to Love Me
  6. Soul Singer in a Session Band
  7. Classic Cars
  8. Middleman
  9. Cleanse Song
  10. No One Would Riot for Less
  11. Coat Check Dream Song
  12. I Must Belong Somewhere
  13. Lime Tree

   If you or one of your friends hails from the indie scene, you’ve heard of Bright Eyes, the love-them-or-hate-them (often rotating) lineup, but moreso a moniker for frontman Conor Oberst. While not the epitome of indie rock, Oberst’s songwriting and unmistaken vocal style have long associated the musician with the genre (or what comes off as more of a movement when heard through the fervor of Oberst’s singing).

   I was a late bloomer when it came to Bright Eyes appreciation. At first, much like the show Lost, not only did I not appreciate them, I flat out rejected them. My freshman college roommate used to play the band in our dorm room, and I was literally offended by the attack of Oberst’s presence. There was an air of self-importance that I couldn’t stand…a sense for me that he was trying to sound indie (or however you’d classify it), not unlke Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy.

   A few years later, however, I gave a second chance to the artist when a good friend turned me onto a few of his favorites. I began to grow more comfortable with Oberst’s sound, and really clung to a few songs off of 2004’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. So when 2007 saw the release of Cassadaga, the most recent in a collection of over half a dozen albums (that I admittedly am not too familiar with), I had enough vested interest saved up to potentially really embrace the record. Fortunately, doing so was made all too easy by the singer/songwriter.

   Beginning with two minutes of crescendoing instrumentation and conversational audio clips, opening track “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” then settles into a beautifully melodic, calmly-paced, guitar-driven ballad, Oberst’s echoey vocals (more mellow than we’re used to) entering into what feels like a criticism of American government. Although I can’t say I fully get it, I just feel like agreeing with him as he sings, “Corporate or colonial/ The movement is unstoppable/ Like the body of a centerfold, it spreads/ To the counter-culture copyright/ Get your revolution at a lower price/ Or make believe and throw the fight, play dead.” As percussion and twangy country guitar join in, so does a full-bodied orchestration of strings, horns and woodwinds, turning the simple tune into an epic start to the lengthy album.

   Second track and single, “Four Winds”, is an upbeat folk rocker of a song, the familiar assertive vocal style of Oberst back on display, and opening with a full minute of violin solo that, although catchy and impressive, can’t help but remind me of the Christmas tune “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (any seconds on that?). It teems with religious themes (a commentary found throughout the album), with lines like, “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qur’an’s mute/ If you burn them all together you get close to the truth.”

   “Hot Knives” is unmistakably the album’s loudest and most bad-ass track, an attitude from Oberst fully in sync with the darker but defiant musical tone, the pace and ferocity of the band’s playing commanding atention from start to finish. Again, never much of a lyrics man, I’m not entirely sure of Oberst’s sentiments throughout the song (there’s more religious undertones with lines like, “With the Son of God just hanging like a common criminal”), but I find myself singing along with equal fervor as Oberst proclaims, “Oh I’ve made love, yeah I’ve been fucked…so what?”, the instrumentation then breaking into a mayhem of aggressive country rock.

   On the complete other hand is album closer “Lime Tree”, the slowest, most mesmerizing track on Cassadaga, though not at all the least passionate. Opening with a slow guitar strum, Oberst emerges with what for him seem suppressed vocals, haunting strings and introspective lyrics adding to the dreamlike aura of the nearly six-minute song. Aided by the back-up of uncharacteristically angelic female singers during bursts of emphasis, a line like “Don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much” echoes in your mind after the track has finished. It seems the audio counterpart to a dark evening’s boat ride with yourself, Oberst concluding the vision (and album) with, “I took off my shoes and walked into the woods/ I felt lost and found with every step I took.” Like much of Cassadaga, it feels like the thoughtful outpourings of an artist who, though confident in his ways and the ways of the world, can’t help but ponder how he and them got there in the first place.

   These are just four of the thirteen tracks found on Cassadaga, and most of those not mentioned serve as pleasant and agreeable fillers to the handful of truly remarkable songs, all unique, that pepper the album. On the whole, it’s one of the more inspired albums than what can be expected even from some of the best in the genre. While most others made their conclusions significantly earlier than I and with different material, Casadaga proved for me that Bright Eyes, aside from being capable of writing really good songs, is also capable of making really good albums. With one more expected from the group before Oberst closes the door and moves on, let’s hope it packs just as much punch.

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