Acoustic Bright Eyes Disappoints

Conor Oberst, Omaha wunderkindAn Evening of Solo and Collaborative Performances with Bright Eyes, Jim James, and M. Ward

Loew’s Theatre, Jersey City, February 24, 2004

The idea looked good on paper.

Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward have hit the road with their iconic indie-rock melding of the minds. Conor Oberst, the face of Bright Eyes and oft-argued about troubadour, headlined the show at the grand Loew’s Theatre—a fully restored theatre from the 1920s that was holding its inaugural event on this night. Much of my criticism of the show, however, falls on Oberst’s shoulders. For one, although I’ve never been one to only want to hear the “hits,” the Omaha wunderkind only played two tracks from Lifted, his most popular and undoubtedly best album. “Waste of Paint” came at approximately the halfway point of Oberst’s set and was a shot in the arm for what had been a slow, meandering selection of older tracks. Its arrival was greeted warmly, receiving the biggest ovation of the night from a crowd seemingly screaming for more tracks from Lifted.


What turns most Bright Eyes detractors away is exactly what led to his failure on this night—Oberst writes wordy songs that use obscure metaphors and references to mask his lyrics’ true intent. His lyrics don’t fit into any sort of rhythm, which although charming on record, sounded clumsy live. These flaws were accentuated by the show’s format. All three performers played solo sets, collaborating on certain tracks through each individual’s set and then again for a mutual set at the end. Ward, James, and Oberst performed in a revolving-door style, overlapping their sets so the following act would appear a couple of songs early to ease the previous act off stage. Oberst, who appeared mostly with only an acoustic guitar, dragged his songs through awkward, loping paces and stumbled through their most important moments. This uninspired performance did nothing to mask the shortcomings of his early work, his most cringe-worthy lyrics rang crystal-clear (“Now you’re a basketball / The boys all pass you around / And bounce you off the ground / And dribble you / And then all share high-fives”), hanging amidst the intimate crowd of hipsters and drawing more than a few chuckles from people embarrassed on Oberst’s behalf. A song only introduced as “new” displayed an even more delicate (and still promising) side of Bright Eyes, but provided one of very few highlights for what could have been a much more memorable performance.

M. Ward took stage first and tip-toed through an impressive collection of subdued yet rootsy country and blues-inflected songs, his tenor melting over impressive arrangements and wistful guitar passages. Ward’s voice had Jeff Buckley’s ghost all over it, sounding cloned from the “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” demos. An instrumental interpretation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody of Blue” displayed an interesting blend of finger-picking and controlled loops, the interlocking melodies drawing an image of at least five separate guitars entirely created by one. Ward slowly burned his way through each selection with care and intensity alike and did a fine job supporting his, as Oberst himself described, “three fucking amazing albums.”

Jim James proved to be the night’s brightest star, his soaring voice finding a soul mate within the reverb-friendly walls of the theatre. Between songs spanning My Morning Jacket’s stellar catalogue, James took advantage of the show’s particularly intimate atmosphere, chatting with the crowd and attempting to cut through the palpable sense of melancholy with a few lighthearted jokes. James’ greatest asset is surely his voice, and on this night the words leapt from his mouth and were lifted higher beyond James’ control and into another, seemingly inhuman register. His last song, It Still Moves‘ starry “Golden,” found M. Ward and Oberst joining James to recreate the wilting lead melody.

The story which overshadowed an otherwise enjoyable night, however, was Oberst’s disappointing nonchalance. It is possible, despite the presence of a strong new song, that Oberst only had one truly great album in him, and by avoiding it almost completely he automatically put the wrong foot forward—a shame considering the strength of ignored Lifted tracks “Bowl of Oranges,” “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” “From a Balance Beam,” and “Method Acting.” In fact, the most celebrated artist of the night came off as the most amateurish, easily mistakable for a coffee shop open-mic-night singer-songwriter. I understand that as an artist grows, past work serves as a growth chart, but for someone who has only recently emerged from his awkward phase it’d serve beneficial to not look back on those embarrassing yearbook photos just yet.

On a night that was supposed to celebrate a passion for music and camaraderie between three of the most respected musicians in indie rock, one that avoided higher-profile venues and Ticketmaster alliances for a more intimate aesthetic with a continuous flow of music and potential for interesting collaboration, Conor Oberst went through the motions. A nice gesture, to be sure, to offer a night devoid of frills and cut straight to what matters most. Except for one thing.

The guest of honor forgot to show up.

49 thoughts on “Acoustic Bright Eyes Disappoints”

  1. I am morose, tired and weary. I have needs and feelings. I am deep like a very old well. I choose metephor and irony over all else.

    blah blah blah

    As much as I love some of the fresh crop of alterna-hipster-intellectual-popish-rocksters, I find myself all too often with that aspertame taste in my mouth after sipping their brew. With the ever increasing genre-ization of rock it’s as if each subset and clique is in a perpetual race to front itself as “more” of what it already is. It used to be that rockers showed their talent by somehow transcending their established voice. For a band like Radiohead the result is something to acclaim. Others, like the Beastie Boys have shown that sometimes risk produces some good with the bad. Both of these examples, however, come from the minds and decisions of original artists. People who did something from the beginning that was markedly different. They are a rare vintage. Something you sip and savor. Today, there seems to be a plethora or indie-ish acts out there that are not lacking on talent or zeal. They are earnest to a fault, and quite often their product tastes like Diet Rite.

    I wasn’t at the Bright Eyes show, but the criticism of it seems to hit a chord that I’ve found repeatedly of late in discussion of indie or pseudo indie bands. It’s as if much of the current crop is comprised soley of those nerds in highschool band, the guys who stayed after school to play in the Jazz band to be specific. There was a time that the aspiring garage and rock star was more ‘stoner’ than ‘band fag’. But in recent years as irony has trumped passion and the uncool have come to reign and become cool themselves, somthing seems to have been lost.

    I for one don’t need to listen to another band that was inspired by the Cure and Morrisey. Nor do I need yet another poetic acustic masacre at ticket master prices. I want to hang out with the hoods and smoke Marlboros. I wanna give a nerd a swirly. Give me a Van Halen circa 1979. Give me Husker Du and 40 of High Life. Show me something straight outa Compton instead of Juliard. No more Diet Soda. I want the stuff with full caffiene and plenty of high fructose corn syrup.

    I wanna rock, man! Is that so much to ask for.

    Peace

    Scotty

  2. I want to rock, too. I just found a stash of Molson XXX double deuces under my desk. I’m going to shatter two of them on the heads of the fancy and morose twee kids, and toast the rest to the Riverboat Gamblers. That’s me pissing on your leg.

    JTL

  3. M. Ward is the shit. I was angry when I realized that I’d have to go to a Bright Eyes show if I wanted to see him live.

  4. Give me a Van Halen circa 1979. Give me Husker Du and 40 of High Life. Show me something straight outa Compton instead of Juliard. No more Diet Soda. I want the stuff with full caffiene and plenty of high fructose corn syrup.

    I wanna rock, man! Is that so much to ask for.

    Mullethead.

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more Scotty. As a wise man once said, “I like to rock”. For me it’s always been about the music and how it makes me feel, the lyrics have pretty much fuck all to do with it.

  6. Oberst writes wordy songs that use obscure metaphors and references to mask his lyrics’ true intent. His lyrics don’t fit into any sort of rhythm, which although charming on record, sounded clumsy live.

    I don’t think that’s what turns people away. It think it’s his tendency to wallow in the wimpiest, whiniest adolescent cliches there are, to imagine that he’s tortured and deep when in fact he’s transparently manipulative and mind-bogglingly shallow. He brings out the mean side of me instantly, the part that wants to take candy from babies just to watch them cry. However, unlike actual babies, Conor is just begging for it.

    *deep breath*

    Don’t get me started. All this is covered more or less on that first long Conor thread, anyway.

    Hate hate hate that guy. Hate him.

  7. I’ve certainly teetered on the brink of Whimpsterism before, but a good cure is to listen to some Bright Eyes records and contemplate the dark path that lay ahead of you.

  8. For what it’s worth, I went to an all boys Catholic high school with Jim James and he spent more time with the stoners than the whiny band kids.

  9. I can’t decide if I like the part about the uncool coming to reign or hanging with the hoods and smoking Marlboro’s the most from Scotty’s post.

  10. God damned, I agree with you guys. Bright Eyes is a whiny bitch that drives me nuts. Between him and Death Cab For Cutie, there’s not enough testosterone to fill a thimble.

    I was talking with the guys from Arab Strap who did a tour in the States supporting Bright Eyes and I quote, “we thought it would be an opportunity to play to a new group of people and make some new fans. Little did we know that we’d be playing to thousands of 15 year old girls.”

    M. Ward, I thoroughly agree, fucking rules though!

  11. I really like that “Bowl of Oranges” song though. I think it’s great.

    And I like a lot of wimpy stuff: the Lucksmiths, some Belle and Sebastian, etc. I’ve got no problem at all with non-rockers as long as it’s pretty, smart and/or moving. Manipulative, cloying and saccharine is unacceptable though.

  12. m ward and jim james seem inappropriate to share a bill with that lil conor brat. must have given him a good bit of noogies every night post-show. screw “emo.”

  13. I think they’re bitching about the fact that they swung a tour on a tight budget in hopes of expanding their audience but once they were on the road, the thousands of 15 year old girls weren’t really the type to get into their stuff.

    How would you be able to tell the difference between twee and wimpy. Belle & Sebastian are twee but not wimpy like Bright Eyes. I dig twee, but wimpy makes me want to puke. Ya know?

  14. The difference between twee and wimpy, and also between quality and crap in many things, is wit. Belle and Sebastian have it, The Smiths have it (in spades), many great bands that are otherwise a bit on the wimpy side are saved by their ascerbic and intelligent worldview. Compare:

    B&S: “He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could have been a brilliant career.”

    Conor: “You are constantly surrounded by the swirling stream /

    of what is and what was.”

    One has weight, meaning, even plot. The other is completely vapid.

  15. I’ll admit to liking to some Bright Eyes, doesn’t mean I don’t want to bitch slap that guy once in a while.

    But thank you Keenan for the link. I’m sure my coworkers are wondering what kind of work-related computer activity could possibly be making me laugh so hard.

  16. I’m was happy he didn’t play lots of songs on lifted. I hate the new Bright Eyes fans. Anywasy Lifted is not his best album I would have to say fever and mirrors is.

    The people who don’t like bright eyes just don’t understand and really don’t know good music when they hear it.

  17. Actually I figured it was the people that don’t like Phil Collins who don’t know good music when they hear it, but I guess thats a whole other uphill battle.

  18. Neah, neah. The people who don’t “get” Billy Ocean are the ones who “just don’t understand and really don’t know good music when they hear it.”

  19. just a minute there… take it easy on poor ol’ billy ocean. his only goal in life was to share some carribean soul and bring a little smile to the face of anyone who was fortunate enough to come across his unique island infused pop songs of love, loss, and automobiles set to the gloss and excess associated with 80’s music production.

  20. Hey.

    I read the first part of the article about Bright Eyes, and the guy who wrote it doesn’t sound cool. “Oberst only had one truly great album in him, and by avoiding it almost completely he automatically put the wrong foot forward..”

    Yeah. Um. Lifted is one of my least favorite Bright Eyes album beacuse of its perfection. I guess I like that wordy stuff. “The Calendar Hung Itself” and “Saturday as Usual” rock my world. “Solid Jackson” live was the shit.

    But I wasn’t at this particular performance. I’m browsing the internet trying to find an e-mail address or a website for the band Billy out of the Sioux Falls, SD. If anyone could help, that’d be cool. My e-mail: [email protected]

  21. I feel sorry for anyone that didn’t think that show, or the version that came to their town, was awesome. I’m torn, because I live in Omaha, so the popular thing to do is to love conor, while reading ‘indie’ review after review in which the popular thing to do is to hate conor, so I’ve been forced to make up my own mind for myself. The conclusion: he’s good. To say this kid only has one good album is like saying Bob Dylan only had one good album, because he is our generation’s Bob Dylan. Give him time, if you don’t like the old stuff, he did as a teenager, just wait, the stuff he’ll do as a twenty-something will kick your ass. As far as only playing a few songs off of his most recent record, I’ve been to a dozen shows, and at most have heard the same song three times. He writes like we breath, you just have to expect that the majority of song’s he’ll play will be unreleased. Doesn’t mean they aren’t bett that most of the stuff out there. I saw the first show, here in Omaha, it was great, these are three great musicians, see it if it comes near you.

  22. havent seen conor or any variety of his stage show, but i do know that lifted is one of the best cds i have ever heard. while the cd might have been played out bc of the hype, (spin anyone?), a song like lets not shit ourselves still holds water with troops over in iraq and our cowboy presidents designs on the moon or mars or wherever the fuck hes going.

  23. From experience, I’ve learned there’s no faster way to get Googlers to your website than by including the words “Bright Eyes” or “Conor Oberst” on it. And they will all love him love him love him, breathe heavy and moan and stab themselves in the breast like Juliet and bleed all over your comments. Happens every. Single. Time.

  24. I don’t even know how i got to this site, but i read some of your comments , and i think that conor is as real as anyone else, free to express himself as he pleases, whether he sounds like a whiny bitch or not…he’s just being real…i think his lyrics and emotions may express how anyone could feel, especially since many times his lyrics seem to be somewhat confusing sometimes, as if they go in a circle and the solution never really comes about..he’s just weird…but i guess we all are..i think it’s cool he just doesnt give a fuck and sings how he feels and expresses his thoughts..

  25. personally i prefer death metal and i hope anyone who listens to conor commits suicide because they deserve it.what a fucking whiny bitch who needs to grow up and realize he needs to get the fuck off his pills and meds and whatever he takes and realize his depression is a joke…gimmee a break..i mean seriously, are you kiddin me?! This guy promotes suicideand death, and drugs, god SOMEONE GIMMEE A FUCKIN NEEDLE SO I CAN INJECT MY BODY WITH HEROIN AND DIE RIGHT NOW!jesus h christ

  26. yeah death metal certainly doesn’t promote suicide and death and drugs. if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, fuck ass.

  27. i don’t think bright eyes is the best, but as far as your review, you are a jackass. His lyrics are excellent. They are his strong point. The music is not incredible but the lyrics are. How is wordiness a bad thing. the lyrics are why i listen to bright eyes. if only he would let someone with a good singing voice sing them.

    and i quote:

    “Oberst writes wordy songs that use obscure metaphors and references to mask his lyrics’ true intent”

    you are an idiot. are you truly criticizing a lyricist for using metaphors? “to mask his lyrics true intent”???? what the fuck does that mean. if you want song lyrics with hit you over the head with a brick simplicity, why don’t you try 99% of bands out there. Moron.

  28. Yeah, yeah Cad. Now let’s get back to that Billy Ocean comment.

    I think even Billy O. would probably hate Bright Eyes – the antithesis of his sunny pop music. He’d probably listen to it and say: “What the fuck is this guys problem?” Then he’d probably spark a J and put on some Outkast for a dip in the hot tub.

  29. Maybe Oberst is the only one that has enough balls to admit that he is a guy and he does have emotions. And to express them.

    I’ll wait until you make an amazing album. Until then, you can shutup.

    And stop whining.

  30. Maybe Oberst is the only one that has enough balls to admit that he is a guy and he does have emotions. And to express them.

    But, see, he’s not. There are plenty of good bands (the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, the Cure, Radiohead, etc.) that aren’t exactly cock rockers but still avoid sucking like most emo bands. I really think it’s the sucking that people are taking issue with.

  31. Hey, buddy fuck you, Conor Oberst is the best fuckin writer ive ever heard. Hes way better than you could ever be. And im talkin about the loser who wrote the Article.

  32. lets talk about cliques. connor oberst fits in to the whiny emo clique because hes always complaining about the same teenage problems and acting like everyone should feel sorry for him. however m. ward also fits in to a clique, roots music. so does belle and sebatian, overproduced peppy pop. so do the microphones. so do the decemberists. so does built to spill. so does van halen. so do the bestie boys. litterally all bands fit in to cliques. whether you like it or not your band is ripping someone elese off. its the nature of western music and music abroad. so stop whining about oberst because he’s melodramatic and clique. i learned to stop whining about van halen because they have dumb lyrics and sound like led zepplin. and while i’m at it, lets stop being such assholes to the fans of bands we don’t like. music is a variable thing, and what is liked by one person is hated by the next. we all have different tastes and distastes and it is in know way productive to hunch in front of our computers and type different well constructed arguments as to why this or that group is a bad group. stupid forum bullshit man. stop being whiny and close minded.

  33. B&S: “He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could have been a brilliant career.”

    Conor: “You are constantly surrounded by the swirling stream /

    of what is and what was.”

    One has weight, meaning, even plot. The other is completely vapid.

    dear kenan, please talk to your english teahcer and see if he can tell what “analyzation of textual and lyrcal content” means (you may even learn to deconstruct somthing that doesn’t have surface meaning! shutter).

  34. just a minute there… take it easy on poor ol’ billy ocean. his only goal in life was to share some carribean soul and bring a little smile to the face of anyone who was fortunate enough to come across his unique island infused pop songs of love, loss, and automobiles set to the gloss and excess associated with 80’s music production.

    pure genius, pure genius

  35. lets stop complain about bright eyes and bring up the new modest mouse album. man is that thing over produced

  36. wtf? what kind of self-absorbed asswipe sits around and writes this kind of shit anyways? if you truly, honestly don’t like conor or emo….DON’T FUCKING LISTEN TO IT! but it’s not like ur gonna change the minds of others…b/c conor is one of the greatest writers and singers ever! he’s the best…u need to do sumthing better with your time.

  37. Yeah. Whats everyone thinking. Connor Oberst is the GREATEST EVER. I’ve never heard anyone sing as good as him or write lyrics better. Oh wait yes I have. Fuck this pretentious little shit. Anyone who has met him or seen him live and doesn’t see through his bullshit can eat my cold shit.

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