By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Rumor had it Oberst was spending a lot of time in New York of late, so the new chapter made sense. At a recent Knitting Factory show, he was joined onstage not by a crew from Omaha, but by Brooklyn-based solo artist Ben Kweller and Jesse Harris, a songwriter famed for penning two of the songs on Norah Jones’ seven-times-platinum Come Away With Me. That morning, though, Oberst had just returned from a recording session in Lincoln, where he was cutting a new Bright Eyes record for Saddle Creek. How was it going back home, I asked.
“It sucks,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t suck, but it’s hard. It’s great to see my friends, but it doesn’t really feel the way it used to feel.” There was a note of warmth and humility in his voice, but also a certain petulance, an eye toward new adventures. “I love my close friends, these people I’ve played in bands with, but they’re older than me. They’re not getting domesticated, but they are growing up. Two of the guys in Cursive are married and have houses and do that kind of thing. The group of us that hung out, and made this music, and were together all the time? Well, that time is over. Everyone’s so fucking busy.”
He sounded like a man lamenting the loss of family. “We still love each other, and still get together, but it’s an effort. It’s not like when we were just killing time and had nothing better to do than sit around and get wasted and make music. That’s over. So it’s just sad to me. I’d rather be here, or somewhere where I don’t feel like I’m living in a memory.”
He sounded like a boy growing up.
A Saddle Creek Primer
So far, there aren’t many undiscovered gems in Saddle Creek’s discography. The strongest albums are the most beloved and best selling to date. Buy these:
The Faint: Danse Macabre (2001)
Their debut, Media, found them grappling with influences like the Cure, and 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcades
didn’t have the punch of their ’80s new-wave idols, but the Faint’s third album is the sound of a band growing into itself. Danse Macabre grinds forward on a wave of crunching synths, sharp dance beats and singer Todd Baechle’s malevolent intonation. It’s loud, slick and hard, and points to an increasingly gothic sensibility. The lyrics read like sexy dance-club haiku, but the titles say it all: “Agenda Suicide,” “Posed to Death,” “Violent.”
Bright Eyes: Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)
Clocking in at 72 minutes, Lifted is a record that sounds both regal and ragged. Conor Oberst’s got a million words, and the warmly produced backdrops effortlessly switch up between alt-country, rock, orch-pop and even a waltz. Oberst’s adenoidal voice may grate on some listeners, but there’s no denying his magnetism when he sketches out his righteous adolescent fever dreams. “I have no faith,” he sings, “but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul.”
Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things (2002)
Led by former child actress Jenny Lewis, L.A.-based Rilo Kiley are one of Saddle Creek’s few “expansion teams.” Their music is modest indie guitar pop, but their debut for the label is bigger than the sum of its influences. Sweet songs stretch out with the expansiveness of country music and are airy both sonically and thematically. With lyrics like “I feel the earth beneath my feet” and “We’re all so upset about the disappearing ground,” and successive songs titled “With Arms Outstretched” and “Spectacular Views,” it’s as if Lewis is ready to take flight.
Cursive: The Ugly Organ (2003)
“They’ve got a good fan base, they’ve got integrity, they’ve got a D.C. sound,” sang front man Tim Kasher on a 2001 EP. He was describing his own band, and he hasn’t let up since, writing song after song of self-
referential, innovative emo. He articulately dissects the genre’s romantic dysfunction and clichéd sounds, and on The Ugly Organ the band added carnivalesque keyboards and dramatic cello swoops to their formula — three-minute bursts of crisscrossed guitars, off-kilter rhythms and Kasher’s uniquely anguished voice.
Various Artists: Saddle Creek 50 (2003)
A well-edited celebration of Saddle Creek’s 50th release. It features 11 artists matching their best song from the label’s back catalog with an unreleased tune. There are many side projects (Cursive front man Tim Kasher leads the softer, electronic-oriented Good Life; Conor Oberst fronts the punky Desaparecidos), but also sweet fruit plucked from the more distant branches of the family tree. Mayday features Cursive guitarist Ted Stevens ambling along on folky dirges. Matt Oberst’s Sorry About Dresden has Conor’s brother knocking out shambling indie-rock tunes. And two related bands from Athens, Georgia — Now It’s Overhead and Azure Ray — specialize in moody songs touched by stuttering electronics and dreamy strings, respectively. An ideal introduction.
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