BRIGHT EYES 'CASSADAGA' (SADDLE CREEK)
In 2005, Conor Oberst split his creative energies in two with the dual release of the folky "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the more coldly electronic "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." Although both had their merits, they lacked the spontaneity and freer spirit of the band's 2004 breakthrough "Lifted..."
Musically, "Cassadaga" is more well-rounded, showing off the range of Oberst's stringed minstrels, who can sound like The Band, Burt Bacharach, Dylan's ragtag Rolling Thunder crew and any number of pedal-steel-toting alt-country bands. The string arrangements are richer and more polished than they've ever been, which may or may not appeal to Bright Eyes' indie following.
As for Oberst, once tagged as another "new Dylan," he's still doing his thing -- spewing an amazing barrage of concrete and abstract poetry that fill 13 songs and 21 pages of the CD booklet. As usual, it's a lot to absorb, a lot to interpret, a lot to enjoy, perhaps, for those who are game.
Cassadaga is the name of a spirit camp for psychics in Florida, which apparently he visited, and throughout the album, souls are grasping for the spiritual, whether it's holy books, tea leaves or mystics in an age when morality is elusive and death is all too prevalent.
Oberst sets the tone early with references to war profiteering and the orthodoxies of the past that pit us against each other. "Future markets, holy wars/been tried ten thousand times before," he rails on "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," and then one song later risks an appearance in the scandal pages with "The Bible is blind/the Torah is deaf/the Qur'an is mute/If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth." All the while, though, he acknowledges an omnipotent power pulling the strings on "If the Brakeman Turns My Way."
Although the record is hardly a dirge, it's haunted by death and uncertainty. On "No One Would Riot for Less," Oberst contemplates its sudden and random nature, singing in his quivering voice, "Little soldier, little insect, you know death it has no heart/it will kill you in the sunshine or happily in the dark."
Like Dylan, Oberst is looking for a little shelter in the storm. He gets his best shot deep on the album with "I Must Belong Somewhere," a song that catalogs both the mundane and the miserable, and seems to conclude with contentment, "Everything must belong somewhere/I know that now, that is why I'm staying here."
With his wide-eyed soul searching, precious self-reflection and sheer verbosity, the 27-year-old Oberst has a passionate following and just as many detractors. "Cassadaga" isn't likely to change that either way. Nonetheless, it's an ambitious, tuneful, well-crafted and occasionally beautiful record that can scrutinized or simply enjoyed.
-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette pop music critic
GRINDERMAN 'GRINDERMAN' (ANTI)
The guys in Grinderman are the same guys in Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. So what makes this raging romp any different from an album by the Australian post-punk blackguard? Well, it's more a group effort apparently, born of loose-limbed recording sessions in Paris and London, where Cave let his id boil over while Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos intuitively bashed out blues/rock grooves. But mostly, it's more direct, wickedly funny and downright explosive, starting with the stomping opener, "Get It On," and culminating in the raucous "Love Bomb."
From the Birthday Party to his 2005 screenplay for his Aussie western, "The Proposition," Cave's had quite an impressive career, but he's never been as much fun to listen to as on Grinderman.
-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
KERMIT RUFFINS 'LIVE AT VAUGHAN'S' (BASIN STREET)
There are far greater trumpeters to come from New Orleans, but few as infectious as Kermit Ruffins.
He projects a spirit of joy and love in his music, just like his idol Louis Armstrong.
"I grew up with Armstrong's music," he once told the Post-Gazette. "I have his spirit, but I don't have his ability. But that's OK because Pops was the man, and that's all right with me."
But Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers also has some ability and it's on display every Thursday night at Vaughan's, a funky old dive on Lessep Street in New Orleans Bywater section.
He opens with the Caribbean-tinged "Skokiaan," before asking the crowd if they ever been to New Orleans. "When you feeling down and out, and you feel there's no way out, you get dropped off in New Orleans," he sings.
After performing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" the music takes to the streets for a parade on "Treme Second Line." Ruffins' voice sounds just like Armstrong on "Hide the Reefer" and he gets funky on Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay."
-- Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette jazz writer