Where to start with…Bright Eyes

Recently, I’ve come to realize that there are many bands that I would like to get into but feel as if I cannot. The main reason for my general avoidance of some groups stems from being overwhelmed by their expansive discographies. There is just too much and I never know where to begin. Do I start at the logical place: the beginning? Or do I go straight to their most recent release? Is there an album somewhere in the middle that best represents their talent? It can just be so confusing! 

For example, I’ve always been interested in listening to Peter Bjorn and John and Pavement but was quite intimidated by the amount of albums they have released. With a little bit of guidance, though, such bands may be conquerable.

And that is where our new feature comes in. Called “Where to Start With…,” it will focus on bands with huge discographies – whether it be because of numerous years of existence or just an overly-ambitious nature (::cough cough Ryan Adams::). We will break down their best releases and explain which ones make the most sense to “start with.” So get ready to take a deep breath and get ready to learn from “the experts,” (at least we think we are).

First up….Bright Eyes (aka. Conor Oberst)

When Conor Oberst started recording under the pseudonym “Bright Eyes” in 1995, his voice and guitars were far too raw for most listeners to enjoy. However in his early stuff you could still see a glimmer in his unsurpassed talent, especially if all that emotion was harnessed. The song writing skills were there. The guitar skills were there. As time went on he cultivated his ideas and skills and has become one of the best songsmiths of this generation.
To embark on an appreciation of Bright Eyes, I suggest not starting with his first release. Instead, begin your Bright Eyes journey with  “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.” This 2005 release is the most accessible of the Bright Eyes albums. It is a folk masterpiece with widespread appeal.  In the opening track, “At the Bottom of Everything,” Oberst tells a story about passengers on a plane that is plummeting into the ocean and then counts into a tune about American materialism and society (with guest vocals by Jim Jones of My Morning Jacket).  Three tracks feature Emmylou Harris’s delightful voice: “We are Nowhere and It’s Now,” “Another Traveling Song” and “Poison Oak.”)  “First Day of My Life” is an acoustic gem with a simple, heart felt video (note: it actually made a single tear trickle down my cheek). “Lua,” a song about an evening full of drunken flailing, is another track that highlights how quiet yet poignant Bright Eyes can be.
  • We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” mp3
Second go to “Cassadaga.” It is a fine example of Oberst’s shift towards a more twangy style of rock.  The single “Four Winds” feels like an old time country song with an intensely political stance on the current condition of world and the differences people claim (“The Bible’s blind/ The Torah’s deaf./ The Qu’ran is mute./ If you burned them all together/ you’d get close to the truth”).  Songs 6, 7, 8 and 9 (“Soul Singer in a Session Band,” “Classic Cars,” “Middleman,” and “Cleanse Song”) are truly the standout tracks. They highlight Oberst’s songwriting, singing and guitar skills in an entirely different way than on previous albums. It is more of a big band style, with harmonic vocals and strong backup guitars. 
  • “Soul Singer in a Session Band” mp3
If you are still curious about what pre-refined Bright Eyes sounds like then try “Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.”  Okay, this is the first Bright Eyes album I ever heard.  At first, I did not enjoy it because it was just too raw for my underdeveloped ears.  But lyrically, this is an excellent album. Each track tells a different story but contains themes of not quite being good enough. “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” is classic Bright Eyes as it features a story about being in a drunken blur, struggling to find some person-to-person comfort for an evening. “Bowl of Oranges” is charming and hopeful.  “Waste of Paint” is more of a pessimistic view on the world.  The last track, “Lets Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)” is a 10 minute masterpiece featuring a variety of themes that characterize the human experience: ambition, disappointment, mistakes .  Most notably, it contains hint of Oberst’s shift towards political activism (“Well, ABC, NBC, CBS: Bullshit./ They give us fact of fiction?/ I guess its even split…As we take eye for an eye until no one can see,/ we must stumble blindly forward repeating history.”). 
  • “Waste of Paint” mp3
Also, if you find yourself drawn to the raw end of the spectrum (like “Poison Oak” or “From A Balance Beam”) you might want to check out “Fevers and Mirrors,” especially “The Calender Hung Itself,” “When the Curious Girl Realizes She is Under Glass,” and “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh.”  It has some great songs but, in retrospect, not entirely important to understanding the music that Oberst is currently releasing because it sounds nothing like this.   
  • “The Calender Hung Itself…” mp3

As a bonus if you enjoy music with a bit of electronica, be sure to check out 2005’s “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” It features a totally different sound and feel as other Bright Eyes records but it has some incredibly poignant songs about alcoholism (“Hit the Switch”) and sex/love (“Take it Easy – Love Nothing”). Also “Gold Mind Gutted” and “Easy Lucky Free” are both stand out songs even though this album is an overall grower.  
  • “Easy Lucky Free”  mp3
Note: Oberst has dropped the “Bright Eyes” name recently and started releasing music and touring with the Mystic Valley Band.  Check out the self-titled “Conor Oberst,” especially the songs “Get Well Cards,” “Cape Canaveral” and “Danny Callahan.” This album is further example of what happens over time with Oberst; the songwriting is still as strong as it always has been but the vocals and guitars are even more developed than they were in the past.  He is set to release another album with the Mystic Valley Band, called “Outer South,” sometime this year.  On his website, you can stream one of the songs from that album, “Slowly (Oh So Slowly).”