When Conor Oberst recorded his solo 2008 album in Tepoztlan, Mexico the resulting work received an eponymous title and his backing band was christened The Mystic Valley Band. The group of 6 musicians toured with Oberst throughout that year, individually writing material that often made it to the stage. By year’s end Oberst took the band into the studio to capture the chemistry that had bubbled up during these live performances. Outer South significantly highlights the band’s position as collaborators as they now share billing with Oberst as well as vocals and writing credits.
Opening with “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” and “To All the Lights in the Window” Outer South sounds like it’s going to be another Oberst fete; with each successive album he becomes a more skilled crafter of catchy melodies, expanding arrangements and, best of all, cunning lyrics. It’s hard to top his ability to capture ideas and atmosphere. As odd as his vocals are, all scratchy and grasping, I’ve come to love what he does with his limited vocal range. The man knows the worth of unique phrasing and the occasional barbed observation. “There’s nothing more sad than a lynching mob/full of rational men who believe in God” he sings in “Nikorette.” That’s mean – but accurate. His take on faith can be downright condescending as he notes “Jesus off in the water/standing on his feet/yeah, that’s the thing about charisma/it makes everyone believe.” Material like that stands out against the work of his band mates.
The Mystic Valley Band members who take on writing and singing duties are Nik Fritas, Taylor Hollingsworth and Jason Boesel. (Macey Tayor and Nathaniel Walcott make up the rest of the band.) They are certainly competent musicians but their songwriting, doesn’t compare to Oberst’s and the contrast is obvious, especially on the album’s one big clunker, “Air Mattress” a two minute ditty that should have been left for the rarities album. Boesel has a pleasant if unchallenging vocal approach as on “Difference Is Time,” but Fritas and Hollingsworth voices are thin and punchless.
Whether you like Outer South or find it disappointing will depend on what you think of the Mystic Valley Band’s role. You may find yourself wishing for more Oberst and, if that is the case, check out his other new project Monsters of Folk. For that album he teams up with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. They’ll be no lack of worthy competition for singing and songwriting duties on that one.