Review: The People’s Key (Bright Eyes)

Sigh.

I’m going to be honest with the reader. I do not worship Conor Oberst, I am not obsessed with Bright Eyes, and my world does not revolve around the release of the latest Bright Eyes album. Oberst’s vocal strain is far too dramatic for my taste, his lyrics are overtly “in-your-face” (no matter what the issue is that he is ranting about), and the hype surrounding his bands and his releases tends to make me want to ignore him altogether.

All of this aside, I did my best to keep my preconceptions of Oberst out of my review here today.

The People’s Key, the eighth and apparently final Bright Eyes release, begins much like a previous Bright Eyes album. But this time, instead of Oberst himself giving the monologue at the beginning (“At the Bottom of Everything” on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning), he has sampled the rant of a seemingly deranged man who evidently believes in some kind of intergalactic, Revelations-esque spirit-stirring conspiracy (“Firewall”). This seemingly unwarranted, lengthy, über-dramatic sample easily rubs an unfamiliar listener the wrong way, giving more-than-subtle hints of unsolicited pretentiousness and artistic superiority. Not exactly the way I’d choose to fire up my project’s final album.

Now, I’ll certainly give Oberst and Co. credit for venturing out into the world of musical exploration. The unorthodox sounds of The People’s Key range from starry synths to pulsating percussion, and from bawking guitars to MGMT-esque vocal harmony. Mike Mogis’s production is certainly a asset to the formation of such an oddly “alt-rock” atmosphere. A portion of this exploratory product is certainly intriguing. “All the rest is predictable,” if I may borrow the phrase..

It’s as if Oberst laid out a few handfuls of musical puzzle pieces on his coffee table. He separates them, organizes them, and then tries to force pieces together that don’t exactly fit. For example…

The dance-driven groundwork of single “Shell Games” is adequate enough, but the searing synth is a bit too sharp (texture-wise, not pitch-wise), creating an odd gap in the arrangement of the track. Not to mention the peculiarity of hearing Oberst’s ashy voice atop a crest of bouncy dance beats…

The strangest component of The People’s Key is Oberst’s B-grade melodies. The one moment on the record where brilliance is begging, PLEADING for realization, Oberst catches a case of the butterfingers. The misfire, “Ladder Song,” is a soft, piano-padded ballad-of-sorts, and it is initially remarkable— Forging the dark mystery of a pirouetting piano with a wounded vocal patch and a fittingly dreary set of lyrics… And then arrives the chorus.

One
by
one;
He
drools
out
the
most
generic
set
of
notes
I’ve
ever
heard.

Basically, this potential masterpiece slips into Coldplay’s “The Scientist” within about four beats.

And that’s the thing that keeps this album from being even “pretty good.” Oberst’s chord progressions are predictable (see the chorus of “Jejune Stars”), his melodies are lacking (see the redundant refrain of “Halie Selassie”), and his lyrics are either too high or too low, intellectually speaking (see “A Machine Spiritual / In the People’s Key” for “high,” “Triple Spiral” for “low”).

What we have here is a case of “slightly above average.” I mean, slightly. Like I said, “kudos” for the optimistic experimentalism, but there’s just not a whole lot of substance here. When I’m hungry, I need some FOOD. This is bread, butter and water.

71% / C- ♭

February 2011 Single Spotlight: Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes)

I think it is more than appropriate that our first article of the year should pertain to the critically lauded, blissfully vintage, indie rock team Fleet Foxes.

The group’s last effort was 2008’s eponymous LP, which was the first full-length release from Seattle’s “baroque pop” kings.

Harmonies after sweet harmonies, lyrics acting as agents in fluent time travel, and production fit for a quintet (now, sextet) of kings… The only downfall with such a mellifluous and strong debut was the possibility of setting the bar too high.

Or so I thought.

The band’s second proffer, Helplessness Blues, is to arrive on May 3rd of this year, and the title track single has been made available for download (for free) through their official website. And it is well worth a listen or thirty.

It’s almost as if leader Robin Pecknold wanted to subtly reference the group’s most popular single (“White Winter Hymnal”) at the very beginning of “Helplessness Blues” in order to refresh fans, since it has been nearly three years since a new, official Fleet Foxes recording has been released. “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,” Pecknold professes with a tired irony of a jaded crusader, sparking a set of revelations and revolutions that unfold steadily throughout the rest of the track.

And as the lyrics begin to progressively give way to declaration, so demonstrates the sudden eruption of spellbinding, brainbursting harmonies (“But I don’t, I don’t KNO-O-O-ow what that will be!”). Galloping acoustic guitar strums like focused race horses effortlessly carry the song through its respective refrains, creating a natural “push” and “pull” (in terms of dynamics and tempo), a charging and a chasing, and then eventually the progression arrives at a breathtaking, seizing sway. And, again, the deep, colourful harmonies…

Ironically enough, my thoughts concerning this brilliant single can be described adequately by the song’s own lyrics: It leaves me “tongue-tied and dizzy, and I can’t keep it to myself.” To say the very least.

PLEASE do yourself three very important favors here. First, download the free single from Fleet Foxes’s website. Then, check out the band’s North American and European touring schedule. Finally, pre-order the whole album, due May 3rd, on Amazon.com.

You can go ahead and thank yourself.