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Conor Oberst contemplates a tour with the Stones.

In Your Eyes

The idealism of regional indie scenes is captured by the Bright Eyes

By Gina Arnold

FOR THE FIRST TIME in, oh, so many years, I didn't have to go to the Rolling Stones concert. No gearing up for an evening of tortuous mixed feelings about music that I once revered, no cowering under the lights and fireworks that now pass for onstage energy, no sense that I'm completely at odds with 50,000 of my peers. Their mere presence in the area makes me long to hear music that is simple and authentic, passionate and young. So I asked my friend Glenn, who always knows where I should be looking for that type of thing, and he said, "Saddle Creek."

Saddle Creek is a record label based in Omaha, Neb. I ran up the street to buy Saddle Creek's latest record, the Bright Eyes' Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, and it totally rocked my world. It reminded me that there is still a core of artists whose vision and music will shelter the rest of us in its warm embrace. Bright Eyes uplifted me--in part, because bubbly buoyancy seems to be the new angst, and partly because it's the hallmark of Saddle Creek. Begun by 22-year-old Conor Oberst, the label and its roster (which includes the Faint, Cursive, Rilo Kiley and the Desaparecidos) hearken back to the halcyon days when lesser American cities--Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis and so on--would throw up these cool, small, grassroots indie-rock scenes of great integrity and artistic merit.

Lifted is the Bright Eyes' fifth record, and it's so bloody beautiful you'll want to play it until you die. With the exception of the highly off-putting first track, "The Big Picture," which might try your patience with its ambient tape and rambling, slow lyric, it's plain sailing through a series of extremely sensitive yet surprisingly jaunty songs that truly capture the feeling of being young and hopeful in a time of moral and political sadness. It's a record about camaraderie and introspection, about truth and the opposite of despair. And ultimately, it's about keeping on despite the feeling we all have, as Oberst puts it, of being "as helpless as a chess piece being lifted up by someone's hand."

Musically, the sound of Bright Eyes is faintly countrified, folky fuzz-rock, with Oberst on acoustic guitar backed by a few gentle female voices and the raucous sounds of drums and marching band when necessary. What lifts it above the usual solo rock guy on a four-track sound we're so sick of is Oberst's own perspective and personality. On songs like "Don't Know When, but a Day Is Gonna Come," "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)" and "Nothing Gets Crossed Out," Oberst's world simply bursts with narratives and feelings that hit home. "The future has got me worried, such awful thoughts," he sings in his committed tenor. "My head is a carousel of pictures, the spinning never stops. I just want someone to walk in front, and I'll follow the leader ... like when I fell under the weight of a schoolboy crush. I started carrying her books and doing lots of drugs. I almost forgot who I was but came to my senses."

In short, Bright Eyes is the opposite of--and the antidote to--everything false and phony about rock. The band is small, lovely, funky and real, and I can see myself waiting for weeks and months for Bright Eyes to come to town, so I can wedge myself into its world for a minute. I know I will be welcomed into its world, and not in the way the Stones welcome their fans, with their grasping hands shaking those who pay them enough cash, but with open arms and wistful grins and a high five that says, "Hail fellow, well met." I know it, because I've been there before, back when the other Bush was president, and scenes like these were the refuge where those of us in the opposition hunkered down with our kind. I'm sorry it's come to this, but at least now I know where to go to get lifted--not like a hapless chess piece, but like a boat on a rising tide.

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From the November 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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