What happens when a versatile indie-folk figurehead teams up with one the most exciting songwriters of the past few years? Predictably, magic. Between his work with Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk and a multitude of solo material, Conor Oberst has revealed boundless energy for creation, mastering tear-inducing confessionals and good old fashioned rock stompers in equal measure. He’s basically a beloved denim shirt in audio form - in the best possible way of course.
In the short time since signing to the Dead Oceans label, Phoebe Bridgers has released the phenomenal ‘Stranger In The Alps,’ teamed up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus for the boygenius project, and even covered ‘Friday I’m in Love’ without making it sound stock. She’s on a roll. So here we stand with their collaborative ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ - 10 songs dropped from nowhere and filled with promise.
Given the talent involved, it’s no stretch to imagine that this is a solid listen, but its depth, brave sonic choices and chemistry make for a near perfect record. Rather than sticking purely with the sad acoustic vibes, the album effortlessly blends country, electro elements and alt-rock with ease. It’s as if the LP was simultaneously recorded in 2018, 2007, and 1993, a tonal greatest hits of hard-hitting emotion and fist-pumping fun.
Take opener ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For,’ a contemporary track featuring talk of Sarin gas, refugees on tv, taking part in charity runs and using white noise to sleep. Modern life may be rubbish, but it has rarely sounded so sweet. The following ‘Sleepwakin’ - with its punchy bassline and vibratone guitar sounds straight out of Cameron Crowe movie - is a strangely uplifting road trip anthem in waiting, and a real highlight.
‘Dylan Thomas’ keeps up the momentum, Bridgers and Oberst lyrically sparring over an infectious rhythm before an impressive slide guitar solo ups the ante further. Later in the album, we have gorgeous numbers like ‘Service Road’ and ‘Chesapeake’, haunting songs that wisely strip things back to allow the musicians to do what they do best: tell a story.
‘Exception To The Rule’ – perhaps intentionally - is the album’s most ballsy moment, a rough electronic beat first making you feel that ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ has finally taken a misstep, before swiftly building into a psychedelic pop song that Wayne Coyne and co. would be happy to produce. It's a great bait and switch, and just another moment of surprise on an album filled with them.
If you like your music heavy with feels, story and a tangible sense of nostalgia, this is for you. Oberst and Bridgers have created one of those rare collaborative albums that rank with the best efforts of the respective artists. On paper, BOCC sounds like an indie fan’s dream, and as sure as vintage amps are cool, it certainly is. With the likes of Sharon Van Etten and James Blake dropping surprising new material in the past week, 2019 is shaping up to be an embarrassment of riches.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
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