Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2005, Volume 12, #1
Written by T.J. Simon
As evidenced by the failings of Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses, itís seldom a good idea for an artist to release simultaneously two separate albums. Generally speaking, the tactic is resented by fans who understandably feel compelled to outlay twice the cash (albeit for twice the music), and lambasted by critics who always cite the theoretically better outing that would have resulted had the lesser tracks been abandoned on the cutting room floor. After his 2002 effort Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground domestically sold more than 174,000 units, Omahaís indie-rock wunderkind Conor Oberst, who records under the moniker Bright Eyes, has chosen to thumb his nose at conventional wisdom and concurrently issue a pair of CDs: Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning. While both albums showcase his stunning talent as a songwriter, they also utilize divergent approaches to achieve this goal. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn swaths Oberstís compositions in a tornado of techno beats, driving keyboards, sound samples, and swirling strings and frequently recalls Nine Inch Nails blended with The Postal Service. Conversely, Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning is a nuance-laden, roots-oriented affair, one which is full of country elements: haunting horns, weepy pedal steel, and tender acoustic guitar. As such, the latter disc brings to mind the work of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, or, for the more contemporarily minded, M. Ward. Because each effort features such distinctive sounds, the decision to release them as individual entities not only is forgivable, but itís also quite commendable.
In addition to Oberstís vocals and instrumentation, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn features an impressive guest list of musicians that include members of Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, The Good Life, The Faint, Now Itís Overhead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Azure Ray. Yet, itís hardly overkill, simply because an army of colleagues and label-mates was exactly what was needed to create an outing that embeds so much aural depth within each of its dozen tracks. Innovative drum loops mix with a strings on Down a Rabbit Hole, and the collectionís percussion, which is both live and programmed, effectively grabs the listener ó particularly on Arc of Time, a tune that feels like a modernized interpretation of something from Paul Simonís Rhythm of the Saints.
Throughout Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst reigns in his previously shrieking vocals to deliver his emo lyrics as part of the albumís textured vibe. I Believe in Symmetry is a straightforward pop-rock track that segues into a dance-friendly fugue and recalls much of The Faintís Wet from Birth. Elsewhere, Oberst used the ballads on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Gold Mine Gutted, Devil in the Details and Easy/Lucky/Free) to adeptly remind the listener that he can still excel with his vocals front and center in the arrangement.
Speaking of which, Bright Eyesí fans who want more of the spotlight to be placed upon Oberst will likely gravitate to the quieter, more lyrical Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning, an album that is decidedly less ambitious in scope than its companion piece. Nevertheless, it is no less impressive in its execution. The disc boldly begins with a spoken-word introduction to the song At the Bottom of Everything, after which Oberst is joined on guitar by Jesse Harris (from Norah Jonesí band) and on harmony vocals by Jim James (My Morning Jacket). Also featured are three bittersweet and compelling tracks (We Are Nowhere and Itís Now, Another Traveliní Song, and Land Locked Blues) with instantly recognizable vocal contributions from Emmylou Harris. Mike Mogisí pedal steel on seven of the ten numbers bears responsibility for much of Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morningís undeniable alt-country feel, and the medium agrees with Oberst who adopts a Ryan Adams-inspired posture with genuine effectiveness.
The choice between Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning will likely be the indie rock story of 2005. Fans of Oberst the singer-songwriter will advocate for the latter, while proponents of Oberst as the ringmaster of a futuristic sonic circus will fall in love with the former. In either case, Bright Eyes should be commended for the creation of two distinct and important albums that further define the young Nebraskan as the visionary voice of his generation.
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn ó
Iím Wide Awake, Itís Morning ó
Of Further Interest...
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box