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New CDs: Conor Oberst, Brazilian Girls, The Enemy UK
Conor Oberst "Conor Oberst" (Merge)
Conor Oberst hasn't done an album under his own name since the dawn of his career in the early '90s, establishing his reputation as the defining songwriter of his generation since then mainly under the Bright Eyes banner.
This return to his original billing doesn't signal a radical reinvention. The name tag and most of the support team (bassist Macey Taylor, guitarist Nik Freitas and Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel are the core band) are different on "Conor Oberst," but the record, which comes out today, mingles folk rock, country, pop and rootsy rock to land not too far from Bright Eyes' broad turf.
It's a little looser, which means pretty loose indeed, and sometimes a lot looser. A minute into the anthem-like rock song "Souled Out!!!," there's a sudden interruption followed by laughter, and then a quick question to the musicians: "Chorus again or another one?"
This is flying by the seat of the pants in the spirit of the Replacements, and by using this take rather than a proper performance, Oberst helps set the record's freewheeling tone.
In its spontaneity and simplicity, the album comes off as Bright Eyes after hours, but while the musical ambitions are scaled back, it's not slight or a throwaway in any sense. There's too much death on its mind for that, and Oberst, 28, remains engaged in his quest to make sense of a world that he describes in one song as "a cruel and elaborate hoax."
As he did on the last Bright Eyes album, "Cassadaga," Oberst generates a sense of constant physical and psychic motion, plotting his journey with geographical detail. "There's nothing that the road cannot heal," he sings, proposing propulsion as a condition of enlightenment.
He cruises through pockets of melancholy and mayhem, tenderness and tragedy. His melodies curl to drive the stories, while his lyrics illuminate the road with a sometimes dazzling light. Oberst's debt to Texas troubadours such as Townes Van Zandt has never been more evident.
As he examines big themes -- loss of innocence, longing for security, a hunger to understand his destiny -- Oberst considers scientific tables and the astral plane but ultimately realizes that "there's no system, there's no guarantee."
A youngster who's dying of cancer -- "bad blood marrow, bald little boy" -- inspires that conclusion, but Oberst also sees redemption in the child's will to make a connection, and he follows that song, "Danny Callahan," with "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)," a slapstick escape story set to piano-pounding, boogie-rock.
"Alone" might be the ultimate and inevitable condition, but until then, this defiant affirmation insists, get your boots on and party.
A rooftop party
Brazilian Girls "New York City" (Verve Forecast)
The Brazilian Girls, four non-Brazilians from New York City, have always made fizzy, smart music for a certain kind of Manhattan party girl. With their third album, "New York City," an obvious title for a band that synthesizes the metropolis' glamorous clamor, they've caught that art-school tart in a few more moods than usual.
Not that the album skimps on the tracks designed for Prosecco-soaked rooftop soirees. "Losing Myself" staggers around a sexy organ stomp, and "Good Time" is a stylish bon vivant that pushes singer Sabina Sciubba's multilingualism into playful nonsense. "Some people go booo they go qua qua they go peeep," she casually intones. The Brazilian Girls know that party intellectuals shouldn't take themselves too seriously.
The foundation of the band's boutique pop isn't its cultural fluency but its daring to be substantially bizarre, which is often realized on "New York City." On "Internacional," already elevated by singer's Baaba Maal's soaring vocals, drummer Aaron Johnston revitalizes the city shout-out with roving, Pan-African percussion.
Although the Brazilian Girls know that style is timeless, they're not afraid to update. "Ricardo" could be the climactic song from a long-lost French New Wave film or featured on the soundtrack to “Quantum of Solace,” the next James Bond movie. Are you listening, Hollywood?
Not working stiffs
The Enemy UK "We'll Live and Die in These Towns" (Warner Bros.)
This headstrong young trio is a genuine sensation in its native UK, where "We'll Live and Die in These Towns" debuted atop the album-sales chart upon its release there more than a year ago. "This will be the genesis of 1,000 bands in Britain," raved NME with characteristic restraint.
Like the Arctic Monkeys, the Enemy UK -- which plays its first area show at the Troubadour Wednesday night -- builds bitter pop-punk bombs about the travails of the average wage slave: In "Away From Here" singer-guitarist Tom Clarke admits, "I'm so sick sick sick and tired of working just to be retired," while "It's Not OK" cautions against "living your life by the alarm that wakes you up every day at eight."
Yet thanks to Clarke's well-developed tune sense and his bandmates' primal need for speed, "We'll Live and Die in These Towns" doesn't sound the way life in a cubicle feels; if anything, it replicates the adrenaline rush of one of those YouTube videos in which a stir-crazy office worker decimates a copy machine.
Even hope rears its head in "You're Not Alone," where Clarke insists, "There's just too many dreams in this wasteland for you to leave us all behind."