Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

Cutting out one-third of ‘Outer South’ would have saved this from sounding much like rubies being strewn across a cesspitt.

There is always a mountain of excitement when we are told that one of this decade’s most celebrated songwriters has a new project on the go, and even more so when the fruits of this endeavour come into flower twice in half a year.

Yet an eyebrow can be raised in the wake of ‘Outer South’, a 16-song effort with a broad spectrum of saleability, one that veers from the cute love deliberations of the former Bright Eyes to the frankly trailer trash finger picking that substitutes brains for a great deal of brawn.

Not all of the blame can be sold onto Oberst, for this is truly a group effort, sometimes solo’s, often flashy guitaring, Hammond Organ shrieks and a swap in singing credits. ‘Difference Is Time’ is one of these swaps and has a terrifying feel of a Red Hot Chili Peppers b-side - the kind where they ditched the punk funk for something a little softer – scarier even than Anthony Kiedis is Taylor Hollingsworth’s baritone falsetto. The song itself is by no means the worst on this varying album, but gives a clue as to where they are pitching things.

If Oberst never makes anything as trite and irritating as ‘Air Mattress’ again, it will certainly be too soon, the sort of nursery rhyme attention to detail and a song that really stretches the social commentary to something as banal as sharing a blow-up bed – the second album in this six month period shows that maybe he really needs to reality check the quality controller. The main problem with ‘Outer South’’s frequent rhyming couplets is the lack of imagination they display – for example ‘Nikorette’ opens with “I’m just tryin to stay a human being / sitting in the sun eating ice cream / texting my friend about a bad, bad dream / just had to tell someone that knows me.” Worse still for this particular track is the way the guitars are programmed to bookend each of these lines, as though profound, the kind of ‘ta-da!’ that should only be rewarded with banality points.

There are moments where the wordsmith of his alias creeps through and the subtlety that saw him almost reinvent country rock is apparent. The lone acoustic echo of ‘White Shoes’ is pretty gorgeous, and Conor’s voice creeps out of the woodwork as though the pair were in the centre of a sports hall being taped. Similarly, low rumblings for ‘Ten Women’ has Oberst doing his most accurate take on modern day Dylan – a grouchier tone and elongated phrases. It’s perhaps the best circular motion track with its winding numbers and euphemisms.

Opener ‘Slowly’ is quite AOR and one that John Hiatt would definitely snap up for his catalogue of stomping country rock, along with ‘Bloodline’, a solid 4/4 beat and harmonised chorus that as well as Hiatt would suit Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. A sometimes flashy guitar filters into many of the middle 8’s on ‘Outer South’ which is no bad thing.

The results of these tracks that peak at the near-legends-of-Americana frame add a little bit of stealth to the tail end of the album, but feel like perhaps they should be on an altogether different record. At 16 tracks, this is far too long to be allowing in those lesser worthwhile listens. Cutting out one-third of ‘Outer South’ would have saved this from sounding much like rubies being strewn across a cesspitt.

Tags: Conor Oberst, Reviews, Album Reviews

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