I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
The albums of Conor Oberst, who is equally adept at acoustic folk and synth-driven pop, are inevitably described with that unfortunate cop-out adjective, "eclectic." But Oberst's latest double release -- I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn -- finally unchains his two disparate personae from each other.
Oberst opens the folky I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning with his best spoken album introduction to date, the sad and strange tale of a plane crash in which a man comforts a woman with the declarative first track, "At the Bottom of Everything." This is a wildly enjoyable acoustic guitar-driven anthem filled with the kind of glorious Bright Eyes rhetoric that makes middle-class white kids want to rise up, and throughout, I'm Wide Awake glistens, a gem studded with beautiful, catchy folk-rock songs. Shades of Jack-n-Loretta's Van Lear Rose: White-haired progressive country legend Emmylou Harris appears on a few tracks, her oddly beautiful voice perfectly complementing Oberst's on duets that initially throw you for a loop, but ultimately grow on you like hair on a fat man's back. Elsewhere, there's a fairly equal mix of bold, fast-paced songs in the vein of "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" and stripped-down acoustic tracks such as "Lua," the album's first single. "Road to Joy," the last (and arguably best) track, is a beautifully ironic song with the basic structure of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It is the perfect way to end an album that drips with charming swagger, introspective insecurity and musical brilliance.
Bright Eyes, John Legend
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Digital Ash in a Digital Urn's intro has a more classic Bright Eyes feel. Heavy breathing, footsteps and dirgelike tones give way to the industrial jaunt "Time Code," which carries on the proud Bright Eyes tradition of ticking-clock paranoia. Thankfully, Oberst limits his self-indulgent tendencies, and these types of tracks are few and far between. The majority of the album is filled with brilliantly produced, keyboard- and drum-driven songs, like the triumphant "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)." Sure, it's more of a mixed bag than I'm Wide Awake, but its strong points are rock-solid. "Arc of Time," "I Believe in Symmetry" and the aforementioned "Take It Easy" are testaments to the inspired production talents of Mike Mogis, and "Theme from Piñata" is an utterly lovely song that makes you want to hug the world.
With all the expectation that has come to greet every Bright Eyes record, this double release is particularly monumental because it's likely to disappoint so few. Whether you are a fan of the corner-crouching Conor or the articulately belligerent Conor, you will find something to love amid these 22 at-times-pretentious, at-times-genuinely-profound songs. -- Kate Richardson
A child prodigy who's been playing the piano since age five and attended college at 16, John Legend played with Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson, among others, before Kanye West noticed his talent and took him under his wing. On Get Lifted, his debut disc, Legend runs the gamut of black music, from the gospel sound of "It Don't Have to Change" to the '70s stylings of "Live It Up" to the hip-hop thump of "Used to Love U" and "No. 1," both of which were produced by West. But his smooth vocals and slick songwriting resonate the most when it's just him and his piano. On "Ordinary People" and "So High," the keyboards effectively set the mood for a long night of romance. With the R&B scene so cluttered with wannabe thugs and gangstas, Legend takes it back to the music. And that's reason enough to Get Lifted. -- Quibian Salazar-Moreno