Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South

By: Dennis Cook

The quote from Walt Whitman on the inside cover ("I have learned that to be with those I like is enough") is perhaps a direct retort to the likely criticisms of Outer South (released May 5 on Merge Records). It's a perfectly fine album – not a great one but a definitely good effort – but it ain't no Bright Eyes. And it's not meant to be.

The "casual" shots of Conor Oberst with his Mystic Valley Band cohorts palling around an amusement park, playing vintage arcade games in their custom sewn band jackets, are a decent harbinger of what's on this album – a loose, chummy rock band making affable music together. There's little Bright Eyes gravitas here, replaced by a vibe born of touring and jamming as a unit and multiple singer-songwriters - of varying skill level, none as strong as Oberst himself, and though each guy sings pretty well, again, none has the same character richness as their bandleader. Almost every cut feels like a sketch for something fleshier that'll emerge live ("Roosevelt Room," in particular, has real concert promise), and in this way echoes the Grateful Dead's early records, where one feels they're only getting part of the story in the studio. Still, some pretty appealing roots rock akin to Hollywood Town Hall-era Jayhawks, John Wesley Harding period Dylan and the friendlier parts of Ryan Adams' catalog. It's strange to draw lines to these artists given how strong a voice Oberst had carved for himself as Bright Eyes but when the sub-genre fits well…

In total honesty, I've never made it all the way through Outer South in a single sitting, and believe me, I've tried. I quite liked this group's debut (see JamBase review here) and went in hopeful. Absorbed in pieces, visited a song or three at a time, the material works, but taken all together it doesn't feel like an album proper. The Oberst penned tracks are his usual quotable stuff, and lighter band penned numbers like "Air Mattress" aren't without their charms. Flatly, it's a nice bunch of songs played by a capable band that's clearly enjoying one another's company. So perhaps liking what you do and those around you is enough.

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[Published on: 6/7/09]

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