Here is a theory: For some people, the only success is failure. Conor Oberst is surely one of these people. Nearly all of the best songs by Bright Eyes, the Oberst fronted collaborative project, deal with failure, specifically the failure of relationships, failure of our government, and, most notably, the failure of his own art. The band’s Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, was their swansong, with perhaps more angst and stripped down emotion than any of their previous releases. The album dealt with pain of all kinds such as the pain of creating art (Oberst’s realization that “everything I have made is trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time” in “Waste of Paint”), the pain of love (“love is an excuse to get hurt” in “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”), not to mention the pain of religion and politics. The only departure from the spiral of misery on Lifted… was in the positively upbeat “Bowl of Oranges.” This track was so intriguing because it was so oddly upbeat and instrumentally simply; Oberst sung of helping the sick and the paralyzing beauty of the world, and left many a listener wondering what provoked this foreign sentiment. Was it sarcasm? Was it a harbinger of things to come? While the track provoked discussion, it also became an extremely successful college radio single and got the band invited to perform on Conan O’Brien. This was not the failure and obscurity Conor was used to, and, after basing nearly his entire career around failure, fans wondered what direction Bright Eyes would continue in.
At the beginning of this month, the world received an answer in two separate discs, released simultaneously; the techno-rock Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and the disc reviewed here, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. From the title of the disc alone, one could tell that things were slightly sunnier in the Bright Eyes camp, and, lest to say, this is not the album anyone expected Conor Oberst to produce. The defining characteristics of any two given Bright Eyes songs prior to I’m Wide Awake… was that they were bound to be self-indulgent, but also most likely sound nothing like each other. The songs on Lifted, for example, moved from gothic orchestral rock to acoustic soul bearing to country with ease. I’m Wide Awake, on the other hand, is almost entirely a country album.
“At The Bottom of Everything” starts the album on a more traditional Bright Eyes note, with Oberst spending nearly two minutes telling the story of two people on a doomed plane crashing into the ocean, each trying to understand the proximity of their own demise. The song itself then begins and listeners get an acoustic, fiddle enhanced bitter, vitriolic lament that ends with Oberst finding happiness because “I found out I am really no one.” This realization by Oberst is a telling summary of the entire album. Oberst was one of a select few songwriters whose work was enhanced by the self-indulgent nature of his songs, and he boldly declares in this first track that he is nothing special, just an average guy. For the majority of the album, the listener is treated to poetic, sparse, downbeat country tracks, many of which feature beautiful backing vocals from Emmy Lou Harris, an amazing country artist in her own right. These songs are beautiful, poignant, and lyrically astute. Oberst even manages to tackle the political without sounding preachy in the slow waltz, “Landlocked Blues.” However, something just doesn’t feel right.
This brings up the paradox of the review, should this review recommend this album as an excellent and adventurous country album, or call this a creative retreat for Oberst and the least exciting release in the Bright Eyes catalog? Perhaps it is too much to expect from Oberst to release an album with the emotional pull of his earlier discs, but the distance by which he separates himself from the listener on this album is huge. Perhaps the best thing to be said about this release is that it really is quite good, and that it’s just unfair to have any expectations for Oberst to follow a linear path, as long as his releases are of as high a quality as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is.
(Saddle Creek Records)
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.