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The Best and the Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst and company won't let success keep them from experimenting

By Gary Graff

Bright Eyes' already glowing future became twice as bright this year. In January, the Nebraska collective--actually the domain of singer/songwriter Conor Oberst and a cadre of musical friends--released a pair of concurrent albums to build on the buzz from 2002's lauded Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and the troupe's appearance on last year's Vote for Change tour package with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and R.E.M.

Wake Up, It's Morning is what Oberst and chief collaborator Mike Mogis call Bright Eyes' "folk" album--a more straightforward, acoustic-oriented, song-based offering that features Emmylou Harris on three tracks. Its companion, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, forges new territory, however, taking Bright Eyes into the realm of electronics and sampling, with many songs written in the studio to beats generated by Oberst, Mogis and Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello.

It's an audacious move, but one that Mogis says felt natural for him and Oberst.

"When we started doing Lifted, we had the idea back then to make two totally different albums--we just didn't have enough songs," explains Mogis, 30, a multi-instrumentalist who engineers and co-produces Bright Eyes' recordings and also tours with the group.

"So after [Lifted] got a moderate amount of attention, we thought now would be the time to do something like that. We needed to do something kind of notable to follow that record. Whether people like it or not, it's at least notable."

Wake Up was the first of the two albums Bright Eyes recorded; they cut tracks in January of 2004 at Presto! studios in Lincoln, Neb., and finished that summer, following touring commitments. Digital Ash was recorded immediately after.

Oberst, who's been recording since he was 14 and has become the face of the burgeoning Nebraska music scene, had plenty of time to come up with enough material for two albums. But he says his move to New York City last winter made him even more prolific.

"New York is a very intoxicating place," says the 24-year-old artist, who started both the Saddle Creek label and the upstart Team Love imprint. "A lot of the songs, especially on the folk record, were written within the first six months when I moved here. It just became kind of a muse for me."

Mogis says that he and Oberst thought about recording one of the songs on both albums, in two different arrangements. "We never took it too seriously, but that was one of the ideas," he says. "We just never got around to it."

Oberst, Mogis and the Bright Eyes team have kept themselves busy promoting the two new albums, approaching them as almost totally separate concerns. They toured earlier this year as headliners to pump Wake Up, then went out with good pals the Faint, playing only songs from Digital Ash. Expect a more mixed bag when Oberst and company hit the Civic.

Mogis says he and Oberst were particularly anxious to see how Digital Ash was received and were braced for backlash, though they've never regretted taking the creative route.

"We're proud of both albums," he says. "I don't feel like they were intended to be compared to one another, though inevitably that will happen. But to us it seemed like a normal thing to do. We get kind of bored with doing our songs the same way every time. It's nice to test ourselves and our abilities to make ourselves happy in new ways."

Bright Eyes plays Monday, Oct. 24, at 7:30pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 305 Church St.; tickets are $24.50 plus service charges; 831.420.5260 or Ticketmaster.

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From the October 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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