I've always had my doubts about Conor Oberst. The Nebraska-based singer-songwriter has been an indie-rock cult hero since fronting the band Commander Venus back in the mid-'90s as a 14-year-old, later building an audience under the moniker Bright Eyes with folk-rock so intensely personal it would make Sebadoh's Lou Barlow blush.
Oberst comes off as a wavery-voiced basket case, equal parts wounded, sensitive soul and crackpot with a microphone. On record, he sounds like revenge-and-guilt-era Elvis Costello reinvented as an introverted, Midwestern mope, and his earnest, obsessive romanticism carries a troubling, narcissistic aftertaste.
Oberst is back with a new band, Desaparecidos, and this time he turns the volume and tempos up and focuses his messy emotions, sharp temper, and palpable concern (for everything) on the outer world, a welcome change that results in the kind of honest rage and unavoidable analysis that Republicans insist on calling class warfare.
Like Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna before him, Oberst's voice (and by voice I mean the literal sound of his vocals) is probably too unhinged for mainstream consumption; the only times he doesn't sound like he's about to lose control are the frequent moments when he does, when the words come out in torrents and his vocal chords shred like a toddler having a tantrum, as on the anti-sprawl "Greater Omaha," in which Oberst gazes out at the growing string of chain restaurants lining the outskirts of his hometown and vomits into the microphone, "And it's ALL U CAN EAT/And they will never get enough/They'll be feeding us/They'll be feeding on us!" All of which explains why, though the barely legal Oberst may be an object of obsession for a few heroically demented adolescents, you'll never be seeing him on TRL, no matter how popular the Strokes get. But by transitioning from the personal to the political, Oberst makes the most of his perpetually outraged yowl, and his new band helps out plenty. Frequent, and inordinately wishful, comparisons to Hüsker Dü and Gang of Four are a little off: This band can't match the land-speed-record locomotion of the former or the jagged precision funk of the latter. But real tunes do eventually emerge from the infernal noise --some of which you may actually find yourself humming afterward.
But what makes Read Music/Speak Spanish so great (four months into the year, it's the most interesting record I've heard) is that Oberst's songwriting is often as delicate and thoughtful as the vocals and music are entirely impolite. At first, "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)" might appear to be the clinical analysis its unwieldy title suggests, but in reality it's almost unbearably moving, a bitter battle between romantic love and financial reality that evokes similarly themed country-music classics such as Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" and Charlie Rich's "Life's Little Ups and Downs." Oberst croons to his new bride, with nary a hint of irony or detachment, "I can't concentrate when I'm at work/I just think and think until my head hurts of the payment plans I'm making/I just wanted to provide for you/But if you want to make a run for it, my love/I'd cover you." The ultimate expression of love thus becomes the willingness to end the relationship and take on all the financial burdens accrued.
The song's companion piece, "Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)," offers a denouement no less balanced between pointed social critique and emotional nuance. And "The Happiest Place On Earth" (with Oberst opening, "I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live/I don't want to be ashamed to be American") may be the most serious and responsible expression of dissent to come from pop music since 9/11.
And, at very least, there's no better music for blasting on Germantown Parkway than "Greater Omaha," where you can scream along with Oberst, "All those golden fields/Lovely empty space/They're building drug stores now until none remains/I have been driving now for 100 blocks/Saw 50 Kum & Gos, 60 parking lots." -- Chris Herrington
Hell, yes, it's a pop record. Were you expecting anything less from Carole King's daughter? Sometimes a Circle is kind of like King's Tapestry as rerecorded by trip-hop pioneers Portishead. And, at times, Goffin's phrasing is similar to Aimee Mann's but without the twitchy borderline-personality-disorder angst. There's even an echo of Laura Nyro or two along with the Brill Building pop-tune catchiness that her mother and father -- tunesmith Gerry Goffin -- were known for in the early '60s.
Every tune here sounds like a "relationship song" with heavy dashes of blinkered self-involvement and psychobabble aplenty. But this is a pop record and what counts are the hooks, the beats, the melodies, and the smooth vocals, and this record sounds great in the same way that a Chris Isaak record does. It doesn't matter that the person singing is about as deep as a mirror and as smart as a rabbit. This is narcissist rock that doesn't offend.
The real star here is producer Greg Wells, who also happens to be Goffin's husband. He constructs sparse chamber-pop settings around his wife's sometimes sappy lyrics in such a way that you find yourself singing along to the most inane choruses and enjoying it. Now that's the essence of a pop record, it would seem. Sometimes surface sheen is enough. -- Ross Johnson
Louise Goffin will be at the New Daisy Theatre on Friday, April 12th, with Sister Hazel and Ingram Hill.
Songs of Sahm -- The Bottle Rockets (Bloodshot): Festus' favorite sons are so sneaky-smart and naturally funny on their own (see "Welfare Music" and "Indianapolis" for proof) that it's a bit of a letdown to hear them doing an entire album of someone else's songs, but at least the late West Texas cult hero Doug Sahm is as fruitful a match as you could hope for. ("Mendocino," "Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City")
Eban & Charley --Stephin Merritt (Merge): The genius songwriter behind the Magnetic Fields with the soundtrack to a movie you'll probably never see. Novel ambient tinklings surround six new songs -- though some of these are more like fragments. For Merritt completists only. ("Maria Maria Maria," "This Little Ukulele")
Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz --Nappy Roots (Atlantic): The fruits of a future that Outkast fostered a few years ago -- six jus' plain Kentucky folks with a brand of rural rap far beyond anything hinted at by Arrested Development. Where Outkast's ATLien futurism is decidedly New South urban, the backwoods beats here are clearly the province of a bunch of self-described "Country Boyz." It's overlong at 70-minutes-plus, but no other hip-hop record has managed to make the Dirty South into an agrarian ideal --or vice versa. Inspirational Song Title of the Year: "Ballin' On a Budget." ("Awnaw," "Sholiz," "Po' Folks")
The Guest -- Phantom Planet (Epic): Yep, for you Rushmore fanatics, this is indeed Jason Schwartzman's (aka Max Fisher's) band, but he's just the drummer. They're sort of a California Strokes --hip, pretty young things with a sound more sunny and naturally commercial than gritty and punkish. This is a sharp if lightweight amalgam of '70s rock where ELP + Elvis Costello = Weezer lite, and über-producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake surprisingly and thankfully don't clutter up the sound too much. Smarter than Train and more tuneful than System of a Down (but not vice versa), this band won't be saving rock-and-roll anytime soon, but they sure do brighten up rock radio. ("Lonely Day," "Nobody's Fault," "Always On My Mind") -- CH