An uneventful non-Irish weekend; early reviews on Cassadaga-eve…

Category: Blog — @ 5:47 pm April 9, 2007

This weather is killing me. Look, we’ve come to expect warm temperatures in April. After all, didn’t Prince sing “Sometimes it Snows in April,” to point out the rarity of the meteorological event? It’s too frickin’ cold, people, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better.

With that in mind, I did go out and see one band this Easter weekend. Every year after St. Patrick’s Day I complain about the band that plays down at The Dubliner, swearing that I’ll never sit through their country-fied God-Bless-America set again. When I tell people this, they always respond with: “You really should check out The Elders. They’re an Irish band out of Kansas City and they’re INCREDIBLE.” Well, last Friday The Elders played at The Dubliner, and I figured, why not? It’ll be something different from the usual indie/punk rock stuff that I get on weekends.

So we made our way down to The Dubliner at 9 p.m., paid $10 each and squeezed ourselves into the packed stage room. The Elders apparently have garnered a strong rep for themselves among middle-aged women and country music fans. The reason would be obvious after the first song.

While the six-piece outfit does sport a fiddle player as well as a middle-aged frontman with an Irish brogue, that’s about it for tradition. The rest of the band consists of an electric guitar, bass, keyboards and set of rock drums. The result: the kind of Irish music you might expect to hear at a Michael Flatley clogging show on the Vegas strip, or Irish by way of Mannheim Steamroller. The Elders play a variant that resembles Irish-country more than traditional Irish music. You can thank a backbeat rhythm section that made every song sound like a bland, modern-day FM country rock tune. That said, they’re uber-talented, and the crowd ate it up. It was weird seeing a guy in his late 40s sing along to every one of their originals while about 30 middle-aged women shouldered themselves in front of the stage Engelbert Humperdinck style. A major label would be wise to sign these guys post-haste and get them on the road with The Dixie Chicks. They could be huge.

We, however, didn’t make it past the sixth song. So far, the best Irish music I’ve heard in Omaha has been performed by The Turfmen, who, incidentally, are scheduled to play at The Dubliner this weekend.

Moving on…

The early reviews of Cassadaga are floating onto the Interweb, and the comments are quite a mixed bag.

The king of music critics and my personal writing mentor, Robert Christgau, wrote the Rolling Stone review that just went online here. “Oberst’s prog and jam-band tendencies are both subsumed by a sensibility that’s Americana in a winning, all-embracing sense. Americanapolitan, let’s call it,” says Christgau in his 4-out-of-5 star review, where calls “Classic Cars” “as fine a reflection on the love of an older woman as Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’…” and concludes with “In Cassadaga, Oberst hoped to commune with the dead. On Cassadaga, he shows he can still tell us something by communing with himself.” Nice.

Not so nice was the Pitchfork review (right here). “‘Four Winds,’ with its squealing guitars and fiddles, sounds like a honky-tonk version of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ and the otherwise affecting ‘If the Brakeman Turns My Way’ is held back by its overwrought roots-rock chorus,” says writer Brian Howe, who concludes with “If he would address the political through this personal lens, exploring his own complicity in the military-industrial complex he currently lambastes from a false outside perspective, he might arrive at commentary that’s more about insight and confrontation than moral flattery.” Which is a fancy way of saying he didn’t like it, giving it a 6.0 out of 10.

Newsday‘s Glenn Gamboa might have the most insightful comments thus far (right here). “…the focus on Oberst’s lyrics is so overwhelming that the musical arrangements bend to accommodate them,” he says in the review. “His phrasing and vocal approach is basically the same from start to finish, covering the same short path over and over again, like he’s pacing instead of creating something new.” He concludes his “B-” review with “In short bursts, Cassadaga can be moving, even brilliant at times. But, taken as a whole, it is repetitive, grating and paints Bright Eyes as more of a one-trick pony than he really is.”

There are a couple other notables.

In a rather wandering review (here), All Music gave Cassadaga 4 stars, calling it “the band’s fullest and most developed record to date.”

While the most gushing comments (so far) come from The Independent out of the UK (here). “With Cassadaga, the prodigiously talented Conor Oberst confirms what many have thought for several years now, that he is the most gifted and intelligent lyricist under 30 working in America – and possibly anywhere – today,” says writer Andy Gill. His verdict: 5 stars.

There are about a dozen reviews online, and the consensus is 3.5 to 4 stars, about what Wide Awake rated when it came out. I think you’ll continue to see higher ratings in the more commercially targeted press vs. the indie critics who look at Bright Eyes with a slightly suspicious eye, and who have been listening to Oberst and Co. since the old days. They’ve heard these songs before — only a less tuneful, more confessional version, a version that probably marked a distant time in their lives that they remember with fondness. I’ve never been one of those critics. I struggled through Oberst’s early self-referential recordings and prefer the new stuff from Wide Awake on.

Anyway… Cassadaga drops tomorrow. What will it bring in its first week of sales is anyone’s guess…

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