By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photos by Jay Muhlin|
Leave behind buildings,
the city planners got mapped out.
Bring with you history
and make your hard-earned feast.
Then we’ll go to Omaha,
To work and exploit the booming music scene.
—Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of All Things”
I left Los Angeles around midnight with few possessions. Little did I know I’d soon be in the land of the flyover people. It’s a sad place. They call the USA a fast-food nation, yet, driving across it, in many parts you can’t locate a Starbucks for more than two miles off the interstate without a GPS system and a prayer, the latter of which are plentiful. My destination was Omaha. I hoped Nebraska might offer some relief. No more cowboys or casinos. No more endless mountainous country. Just corn and flat, fertile land.
I intended to write about Omaha’s grassroots music scene and meet those responsible for Saddle Creek, the record label at its heart. The collective has grown to have an outsize influence on the inbred world of independent rock, drawing the attention of A&R executives on the West Coast and magazine editors back East. Last year the buzz culminated when one band, Bright Eyes, began to get some mainstream attention for their record Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. It was featured in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, and the group appeared on the David Letterman show, where Dave joked about the fact that you could buy the record on vinyl.
The “group” is actually the project of one 23-year-old manchild, Conor Oberst, and whoever he can get to join him. Last year his collaborators began to grow more interesting. On the professional side, Sony Music gave him a publishing deal, putting him in the company of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. On the personal side, People magazine photographed him kissing Winona Ryder in a Los Angeles parking lot, soon after two sold-out shows at the Henry Fonda Theater. Lifted has sold well over 100,000 copies, a staggering number for an indie.
For some, however, the actual music has been the source of much vexation. Oberst’s voice is a distraught, post-adolescent warble. Though it’s rightfully gotten him tagged as a Gen Y Bob Dylan, Oberst’s persona seems like an adaptation of Dylan at his worst — impetuous, portentous, yet without gravitas. For many over the age of 21, that’s enough reason to dislike him. There’s no denying, however, that there’s something special in the music, something bold, and forged at the intersection of ambition and youth.
Azure Ray (left), Rilo Kiley
(Photo by Tony Bonacci)
The typical Bright Eyes song consists of that voice, acoustic guitar and a shambling orchestra — cello and French horn; banjo, oboe, bassoon; and, on Lifted, three separate choirs recorded live at two adjoining bars in the nearby city of Lincoln. The lyrics — impoverished yet entitled, anxious yet sedated, cynical yet innocent — are what make some listeners think of Oberst as “important.” Take the song he did on Letterman, the unreleased “The Trees Get Wheeled Away”:
Oh got no health insurance
no cellular service
no disease they can cure
But we need more money to burn
so each person must learn
the dollar amount they are worth
The emotions are raw and shocked, like that of a 13-year-old catching a glimpse of the larger world, or of his parents having sex. Oberst’s songs document the transition from high school social status to a world of credit-card debt, college loans and STDs. In the increasingly complex consumer culture we inhabit, these facts of life are rarely discussed, and it’s Oberst’s unique talent at expressing what it feels like to face them down that makes him special.
For those who’ve been wondering what the genre tag “emo” means, this is it: youthful neurosis, examined under boom lights. Though Oberst may wear the emo tag uncomfortably, his music is as definitive an example as the million-selling Dashboard Confessional, and 100 times more real and raw.
Words, words, words. Oberst’s been bursting with them from a young age. Saddle Creek began with Commander Venus, a band he formed in 1994 as a 14-year-old high school student. In 1997, three years into their existence, they hadn’t developed much of a following but did have the makings of a career, notably a record deal with a small New York label called Grass, then preparing for rebirth under the watch of music-industry financier Alan Meltzer. Meltzer promptly dropped most of the roster, and promised stardom to acts that would stick with his vision, accept his money and make a good-faith effort to turn out hits. In one account, Meltzer said, “The next band to walk through that door will be made famous — at any cost.”
Instead of following Meltzer’s vision, Commander Venus asked for the rights to their record back, and licensed it to Thick, an insignificant Chicago indie. It disappeared, and the group immediately disbanded. They cited boredom with their own sound — a screechy style of emo-punk only now making mainstream inroads via groups like Brand New and Thursday. The next bands to come through Meltzer’s door were Creed and Evanescence. Meltzer transformed Grass into Wind-Up Records, and the label brought its multiplatinum, Christian-identified hits to an unsuspecting world.