One Hole-In-One, and Three Above Par

I’m feeling terrible today – I worked another hell week, slamming together a couple of major stories, and I slept most of the day away. But I have some really good music to talk about, so I’m trying to imagine myself as a marathon runner, one with just enough energy to sprint over the finish line before collapsing in a puddle of my own sweat. Let’s see how I do.

A quick note before we launch in: Interpol released this week the details of their third album, Our Love to Admire, out July 10. I’m not the biggest fan of this band, although I do like them, but I wanted to mention them because nestled among the track list for Our Love is my favorite song title of the year so far: “There’s No I in Threesome.” That’s just great.

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The new Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga, sports a cover gimmick the likes of which I’ve never seen. The front and back covers look like the snowy pattern of gray you get when your television reception goes out, until you move the included Spectral Decoder over it. The Spectral Decoder is a slip of plastic that filters light in a certain way, causing the true cover design to appear.

It’s interesting, even if it requires you to jump through a few hoops, but what’s ironic about it is that this design adorns the most straightforward and immediate Bright Eyes record yet. It’s also the best Bright Eyes record yet, another terrific gem of a disc in a year positively overflowing with them.

Conor Oberst gets a lot of shit in this column, largely for being pretentious and precious. His early work suffers from a drought of melody, and a threadbare production sense – often, it’s just Oberst and his guitar, yelping out songs that are as thin melodically as they are bloated lyrically. For many, I know, I just described the attraction of Bright Eyes, and as Oberst has moved his musical project further down an epic folk-rock path, some fans have fled, searching for the emotional directness that they believe his later work is missing.

I’m not one of those people. Lifted was the first Bright Eyes album I could stand, and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was the first one I could listen to repeatedly all the way through. So naturally, I think the massive sound and dramatic songwriting of Cassadaga is an improvement – in fact, I think it’s an arrival. Conor’s got a solid band behind him this time, and he pulls in numerous guest stars to play numerous instruments, including percussion sections, woodwinds, choirs, and strings. It’s the sound of Oberst leaving his teenage folk trappings behind him, and man, the sound is sweet.

Cassadaga is named after a town in Florida, which seems to exist solely to house the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, and is known unofficially as the “psychic capital of the world.” As you might expect, Oberst’s lyrics this time are concerned with finding the truth, and with seeing through the sparkle of religious chicanery. “Four Winds,” the first single, is the one to mention Cassadaga by name, and it contains this telling line: “The Bible is blind, the Torah is deaf, the Qur’an is mute, if you burned them all together you’d get close to the truth…”

Elsewhere, Oberst is “looking for that blindfold faith, lighting candles to a cynical saint,” and later he muses, “From the madness of the governments to the vengeance of the sea, everything is eclipsed by the shape of destiny.” By the end, though, he’s certain that “everything, it must belong somewhere,” and he concludes the album with three dots, continuing his quest: “I took off my shoes and walked into the woods, I felt lost and found with every step I took.”

That all sounds very Bright Eyes, although I’ll say it’s Oberst’s most complete lyrical work, largely free of the cringe-worthy metaphors he’s used in the past. But trust me, when you put this CD in and press play, you’ll think you’ve bought the wrong album by mistake. Opener “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)” starts with more than a minute of orchestral sound collage. It slowly transforms into one of the most oddly beautiful things Oberst has written – the orchestra sticks around, taking this mid-tempo, pedal-steel-inflected ballad into orbit, while spacey narration continues in the background. It’s awesome, and very un-Bright Eyes.

“Four Winds” is more familiar, like Ryan Adams by way of Omaha, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. The chorus is so catchy that you probably won’t notice references to the Great Satan and the Whore of Babylon. “Four Winds” takes a couple of shots at warfare in general (“Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe, there are people always dying trying to keep them alive…”), its alt-country groove boosted by some sweet violin playing by Anton Patzner. This, like much of Cassadaga, is I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning times ten, and it seems Oberst has found his sound.

It takes a lot, for example, to turn a simple chord progression into a timeless standard, but Oberst comes awful close with “If the Brakeman Turns My Way,” a song Bob Dylan would probably be proud to have written. He gets even closer with “Make a Plan to Love Me,” an old-time torch song recorded with strings and spectral backing vocals by Rachel Yamagata. It’s gorgeous.

Best of all, though, may be “Middleman,” a fiddle-soaked minor-key western ballad about those gray areas in between things. It gains force as it goes along, adding layers of sound (including another spooky narration), and on an album bursting with songs about wandering the road, this is the most striking and memorable. Oberst’s voice, so grating when left to fill in the spaces around an acoustic guitar, is magnificent here, its trademark quiver propped up by oceans of production.

Some may balk at just how polished and full this record is, but to me, this is what Bright Eyes has been working towards for years. “Cleanse Song” would be an average acoustic piece if not for the rolling percussion at its edges, or the woodwinds painting its walls. “No One Would Riot for Less” is the quietest thing here, but it would be so much less than it is without the otherworldly backing vocals and the delicately arranged strings. Oberst has always been an ambitious songwriter and record maker, but Cassadaga marks the first time that his reach doesn’t outstrip his grasp – the songs are simple and lovely, and the production takes them to new heights.

Best of all, there’s no weak moment, no self-indulgent, artsy roadblock in the way here. For the first time, I don’t want to skip a second of a Bright Eyes album – even the lesser moments, like “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” are well crafted and enjoyable, and the highlights, like Hassan Lemtouni’s contributions to the extended coda of “Coat Check Dream Song,” are wonderful.

Cassadaga ends with one of its prettiest songs, “Lime Tree,” which opens with one of Oberst’s most haunting couplets: “I keep floating down the river but the ocean never comes, and since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one…” If not for the strings, this would be the barest song on the record, with just Oberst, his guitar, and his backing vocal quartet. But like a bookend to “Clairaudients,” “Lime Tree” makes full use of the orchestra. This is an old-time Bright Eyes song, and in the past, it would have been recorded with one mic, Oberst cutting his vocal cords and letting them bleed. But even Fevers and Mirrors-era fans will have to admit how lovely it is like this, still subtle but much richer.

It’s taken nearly 10 years and eight albums, but Bright Eyes has finally impressed the hell out of me. Cassadaga is the first of Conor Oberst’s records that I can unreservedly recommend, and the first time that I think he deserves some of the salivating hype he gets. Hopefully, he’ll stay on this road, and not listen to the backlash that will undoubtedly ensue. Oberst may have traded in some raw intensity here, but he’s been repaid twenty-fold with his most developed and complete album yet. It’s fantastic.

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The other three I have for you this time are not as good as the Bright Eyes, but they’re still worth checking out. First up is Jonatha Brooke, who for years was the more talented half of the Story, and since then has taken her solo career by the horns. Brooke is one of many artists these days who turned a bad major label experience (MCA released 10 Cent Wings, her masterpiece to that point, and then ignored it, letting it die a quick death) into a step towards independence. She owns her own record label, Bad Dog, and her new one, Careful What You Wish For, is her third self-released studio album.

It also makes up for the spotty showing of her last one, Back in the Circus. That album included some of Brooke’s best songs, mired in electronic experiments and ill-advised covers. Careful is a pure Brooke record, 11 original songs of good-to-great quality, and crisp, clear production. In fact, this is the crispest, clearest production she’s ever had, courtesy of Bob Clearmountain – it’s a Big Damn Pop Album, with one radio single after another.

If you think of pop as a four-letter word, you won’t dig this, but if you like big choruses and sweet guitars and tasteful arrangements, Careful is a feast for the ears. It’s the kind of album Shawn Colvin wishes she could make, veering from the acoustic-based folk-pop of “Baby Wait” to the heavy crunch of “Forgiven” to the Beatlesque turnarounds of the title song with ease. Even the song in French (“Je N’Peaux Pas te Plaire”) is delightful.

As usual, Brooke throws in one minor-key curveball, and this time it’s “Prodigal Daughter,” a tale of no forgiveness sung over a haunting electric guitar bed. But despite some tinges of sadness, this all goes down smooth, an enjoyable collection of tunes that further solidifies Brooke’s reputation. She includes a duet with former Hooter Eric Bazilian (author of Joan Osborne’s hit “One of Us,” believe it or not), and shares the stage with former boy banders JC Chasez and Nick Lachey, with no ill effects. In fact, they sound great.

The album ends with a brief acoustic piece called “Never Too Late for Love,” Brooke sounding to these ears like she’s happy with her life and her lot. And she should be – Careful What You Wish For is a sweet record, one of the best she’s made, and she did it on her own terms.

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Less contented, of course, is Tom Morello, who made his name with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Morello’s never been a happy kind of guy – Rage was one of the most politically charged (and politically active) bands in recent memory, taking on cause after cause, and putting their time and money where their mouths were. Audioslave was more of a straight-up rock band, but Morello never lost his political edge, and it’s here in full force on his new solo project, the Nightwatchman.

Morello also has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most inventive guitar players around. Even in the context of Audioslave’s Zeppelin-style rock, his solo spots sounded like anything but guitar solos, and in Rage, he was practically an army of unusual, yet astonishing tones. (Perhaps their best moment is still their cover of “Street Fighting Man,” in which the three musicians made their organic instruments sound uncannily like a programmed rhythm section.)

If you’re picking up Morello’s debut as the Nightwatchman, One Man Revolution, and hoping for more out-there guitar heroics, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Morello’s working in a much older tradition here – Revolution is a collection of protest songs, in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, performed the way that Leonard Cohen might do them. Acoustic guitars reign here, and the focus is on Morello’s low, low voice and his sharp, sharp lyrics.

Sharpest, perhaps, is “Maximum Firepower,” which contains the album’s mission statement: “Don’t be surprised if the sermon on the mount next time is delivered in a little coffeehouse, ‘cause somebody here’s gotta let ‘em know, I doubt it’s me, but here I go…” You likely know what to expect from songs with titles like “Let Freedom Ring” and “Battle Hymns,” and the staunch picket line anthem “Union Song” isn’t much of a shock from Morello either. His social conscience has always been informed by the likes of Billy Bragg and Guthrie, and here it’s at its most explicit.

It’s the sound that could have people scratching their heads. These songs are simple, yet effective, built around folksy strumming with some subtle piano mixed in. It’s a perfect setting for these political poems, although most are not as pointed and specific as you might expect, either. “No One Left” hits hardest, comparing the scenes of devastation at the World Trade Center and the streets of Baghdad. “House Gone Up in Flames” references “Colin Powell’s lies,” but as for direct attacks on the Bush administration, that’s about it.

Instead, Morello paints pictures of the world, using dark colors and harsh brushstrokes. “Can you explain to the mothers and fathers of those who come riding home in coffins in their military clothes,” he asks, expecting no answer. Elsewhere, he stands with a striking union, saying, “As they load the rubber bullets, as they fire another round, I’m heading into the tear gas, dig in, man, hold your ground.” He sets scenes of “broken Starbucks glass” and describes himself as slipping “from shadow to shadow,” seeing “things he should not see.” It’s a bleak and blackened America he describes, and it’s chilling.

Here and there, Morello comes up with a line worthy of his heroes, which is the best thing you could expect from a project like this. My favorite is in “Maximum Firepower,” and it goes like this: “Thought hard about this next line, I’m pretty sure it’s true – if you take a step towards freedom, it’ll take two steps towards you.” One Man Revolution is a successful experiment for Tom Morello, and though I’m not sure who the target audience is, he taps into a deep river of social conscience here, and does it proud.

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A couple of weeks ago, I talked about import CDs, and how I’ve discarded that old rule that kept non-U.S. releases from my top 10 list. You’d think this would have happened by now, but I’ve finally found myself on the other side of that equation – what do I do if I wait for a U.S. release, and the record’s really good?

The album in question is Imaginary Kingdom, the new solo album from Tim Finn. It came out last year across the pond, and finally arrived stateside last week. And it probably won’t make the top 10 list this year, but in 2006, it may have – it’s very good, far beyond most of what Finn has done on his own. Do I revise and reconsider last year’s list, or give it a belated mention this year? I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is how surprisingly excellent Imaginary Kingdom is. Tim Finn has always suffered in the shadow of his genius brother, Neil, and I’ve occasionally taken Neil to task for dragging his croaky-voiced sibling along with him, whether on Crowded House’s third album or on the pair’s two records as the Finn Brothers. Tim’s solo albums have usually been lesser affairs, too, and if he doesn’t find a producer willing to work with his voice, it comes off as sloppy and unkempt.

But not here. Imaginary Kingdom sports the best songs Tim Finn has written on his own, some crystal-clear production from Bobby Huff, great contributions from Fleming and John (where have they been?), and some real, honest-to-God good singing from Finn. The record bounces to life with “Couldn’t Be Done,” a ‘60s-style shimmy with a great little chorus. Better is “Still the Song,” the second tune, which sounds like something Michael Penn might come up with.

I mean no offense to Tim Finn by saying this, but some of these songs are worthy of his brother – that’s a compliment in my book. “Midnight Coma” is a sprightly piece, with a great hook, and “Astounding Moon” is a delight, winsome and magical. “Salt to the Sea” is uncommonly touching, a song of mourning for a fallen friend. And “Horizon” is a superb song of hope.

The album takes an unfortunate downturn from there, mixing in some blue-eyed soul songs that don’t work as well. Finn also includes “Winter Light,” his track for the Chronicles of Narnia movie, and it’s an odd fit, although a decent song. The record rights itself by the end, though, and closer “Unsinkable” is right up there with the best. Even with its few stumbles, Imaginary Kingdom is Tim Finn’s best solo record in many years, and it would have been worth the import price, if I’d paid it last year.

As a quick concluding note, Tim Finn is not part of the upcoming Crowded House reunion – that’s Neil, Nick Seymour and some other collaborators. Their album is called Time on Earth, and will be out on July 10. Well, that’s July 10 here – it’s out on July 2 across the Atlantic. But I think I can wait for that one.

Next week, Tori. Will it impress, or depress?

See you in line Tuesday morning.