Bright Eyes - Biography

Conor Oberst and his groundbreaking ensemble Bright Eyes have taken it upon themselves to redefine the parameters of folk music, fusing it with disparate genres while wallowing in intimacy, personal excess, and a weird, swollen, primal form of self-expressive urgency. Taken as a whole, Bright Eyes suggest a re-evaluation of folk music. The group reflects both the raw necessity of the genre’s early days, when artists like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were stylistically aggressive and avant, and the later efforts of 70s artists from the Southern California scene, who refined introspection to an art. Of course, it would be preposterous to suggest that Conor Oberst is the new Leadbelly; but with his keening vocals, inventive instrumental arrangements, assertive aesthetic, wry wit, and outspoken political views, it might be fair to toss a comparison or two in the direction of some reasonably hallowed artists, starting with, say, one Neil Young, or maybe Blue-era Joni Mitchell (and that’s not meant as a dig). And as far as productivity goes, Oberst is a fundamental force of nature, spewing out quality material in a rapid-fire staccato that would put Jandek or Frank Zappa to shame. In fact, as bizarre as it might sound, Bright Eyes sort of snuggles neatly in some peculiar space between the demented affections and affectations of Jandek and the sprawling, big-band gush of Zappa — all with a pronounced zeal that has permanently inked Oberst’s label — Saddle Creek Records — and his improbable hometown — Omaha, Nebraska — into the annals of indie-rock lore.

Oberst launched as a mere fourteen-year-old prodigy in 1994, with his band Commander Venus. He followed with a variety of acts, including the Magentas, Park Ave., and the Desaparecidos, but it was Bright Eyes (the name taken from a term of affection heard in an ancient Shirley Temple film) that really got things percolating. The membership is a bewilderingly vast roll-call of artists — well over 50 people are credited on the albums within the band’s discography — but the core members are the wildly versatile Oberst on vocals, guitar, bass guitar and keys; Mike Mogis on guitar, pedal-steel guitar, banjo, and mandolin; and Nate Walcott on trumpet, accordion, and various keyboards. The debut came with the prosaically titled A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded: 1995-1997 (1998 Saddle Creek), which featured a slew of catchy tunes penned by Oberst as a teen, and if the delivery and adolescent self-absorption occasionally induced a cringe, the writing was inventive, spot-on songcraft. The follow-up was a shocking improvement and a profoundly amped-up, low-fi classic: Letting Off the Happiness (1998 Saddle Creek), featured members of Neutral Milk Hotel, Tilly and the Wall, and Of Montreal, and some seriously gifted material, as Oberst demonstrated that he was a powerful, first-rate artist.

Fevers and Mirrors (2000 Saddle Creek) is a dark, brooding affair, offset by a somewhat inscrutable scripted and faked “interview” with Oberst. Things really took off nationally for Bright Eyes with Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002 Saddle Creek). The songsmithing approaches genius, and the instrumentation is a stately swirl through country, folk, pop, and intelligently informed electronica. You’re doing something right when they start slinging Bob Dylan comparisons your way before you’re old enough to drink. It’s tempting to shrug off A Christmas Album (202 Saddle Creek), but this is a time-honored (and always lucrative) format, indulged in by everyone from Elvis Presley to John Fahey, and besides, the royalties went to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project.

On January 25, 2005, Saddle Creek simultaneously released two Bright Eyes albums: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning contains some spoken-word sections and acoustic passages of harrowing beauty; Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is a far more electronic outing. Motion Sickness (2006 Saddle Creek) is a powerful live album that concludes with an outstanding Elliott Smith cover, “The Biggest Lie.” Noise Floor, Rarities: 1998—2005 (2006 Saddle Creek) offers an essential glimpse at the cutting-room floor, while the Four Winds EP (2007 Saddle Creek) sweeps up a number of B-sides. And if there’s any doubt about the triumphant vitality and public resonance of Conor Oberst’s expert songwriting and dramatic re-imagining of unique Americana, just look to Bright Eyes’ seventh studio album, Cassadaga (2007 Saddle Creek). It plowed into the US Billboard charts at #4, awash in pastoral glory, orchestral majesty, fierce intelligence, obstinate creativity, precocious charm, and a fervent intent to excel — which pretty much makes it your standard effort from Conor Oberst and company.

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