Conor Oberst got his first record deal when he was 14 and leading the band Commander Venus. While that label, Grass, was bought out and the bands jettisoned and dubbed the new label Wind-Up (which would go on to make millions off Creed), for Commander Venus' tenure proved a cash cow that afforded Oberst the opportunity to start his own label with his friends. Thus began Saddle Creek Records, which has become an indie rock powerhouse, headed by Oberst's solo vehicle Bright Eyes. Oberst's anguished vocal style, which can go from quiet and broken to angry and in-your-face in a moment's twitch, keys his confessional indie pop. Unlike most singer/songwriters, his music not only features great loud/soft dynamics but also warm, enveloping arrangements, abetted by producer Mike Mogis, who fashions a spacious, lo-fi chamber pop sound that's now his signature. The baroque structures are perfect for Oberst's theatrical songs, and Oberst escapes the morass of melancholy misanthropy that afflicts others of his ilk, with an honest lyrical vulnerability that never feels cloying.
While he's a canny writer, Oberst is no Dylan. His skill is in the delivery of his songs: the tremor and quake in his vibrato, the way he'll bite into the last word of a line, and the energy he invests in his moments of fuck-it complaisance. Like good friend Tim Kasher (The Good Life, Cursive), much of Oberst's oeuvre revolves around loneliness and relational pain, but even so he manages a bit of self-deprecating humor, as on "Lover I Don't Need To Love," where he sings of a post-show rendezvous, commenting "bad actors with bad habits, some sad singers they just play tragic."
Indeed, at some point the tortured artist becomes just another pose, but with Bright Eyes there's an overwhelming desire to forgive it, because it sounds so damn good.
Bright Eyes, Coco Rosie, and Tilly & The Wall play the BTI Center in Raleigh on Monday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $19 advance, $21 day of.