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Recording Reviews: 11/1/02

Friday, November 01, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

LIFTED or the Story is in the Soil,
Keep Your Ear to the Ground'

Conor Oberst uses every trick he ever stole from early Dylan in the opening cut of his latest release as Bright Eyes, leaving fingerprints all over "Visions of Johanna" with his phrasing of each verse's final line. And when he turns to the topical side of the Dylan legacy to end the album attacking the networks and "the cowboy president" alike with "Each new act of war is tonight's entertainment/We're still the pawns in their game/As they take eye for an eye until no one can see and we must stumble blindly forward, repeating history," the end result is an exhilarating throwback to the days when pop at least aspired to making you think about the world you bought your records in.

But this is no mere Dylan imitation.

He's taken the essence of Dylan's finest hours -- the rush of the phrasing as the words take on their own life in a race to leave his mouth -- and channeled it into his own voice, one that makes good on that line Mick Jagger sang but didn't really mean about spilling his heart all over the stage in epic after sprawling, unkempt epic.

Other songs don't sound anything like Dylan (who, for one, would never fall back on the drunken barroom choir shtick as frequently as Bright Eyes).

"Method Acting" is the best Old '97s song they'll never write as played by an artist whose thrill of discovery leaves the '97s at the bar. The Bright Eyes mini-orchestra has constructed a towering wall of sound -- complete with choir -- long before the song explodes in a climax of screams. And by the third song, he's dimming the lights with a melancholy, orchestrated waltz that Roy Orbison could have hit the charts with in his prime if it weren't for the Greek-chorus feel of the backing vocals or the way the music stops when Oberst sings "Now all anyone's listening for are the mistakes" (at which point someone in the band says "Oh, I'm sorry," to which he replies "No, that's OK. That's OK" before counting it off again like Lawrence Welk).

And so it goes, as Oberst flits from style to style -- from bare-bones folk to chamber pop -- in an album that's held together by a unity of voice and vision, an intimate invitation to share in the weight of one boy's world.

Oberst's voice, it should be noted, may strike some as less than pleasing (yet another way in which he's bound to make a lot of people think of Dylan).

As acquired tastes go, though, you'd do well to put in the effort on this one.

After all, it's pretty hard to separate the quaver of his voice from the lyrical vision behind the tortured art-as-therapy approach, not to mention occasional turns of phrase as inspired as "Don't go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate," "You say that I treat you like a book on a shelf/I don't take you out that often because I know that I completed you and that is why you are here," or "Meanwhile, the coroner kneels beneath a great, wooden crucifix/He knows that there are worse things than being alone."

For as much as those lyrics have lost in their translation to the written word, I'd hate to think how much they'd lose if burdened with a more conventionally pleasing voice. And if you're old enough to flinch when you're reminded how poor Dylan was himself abused by Peter, Paul and Mary, then you'll know exactly what I mean by that.


When did Britney Spears become the wholesome one?

Christina Aguilera bares more than her soul on "Stripped" in a blatant attempt at putting another mile or two between herself and her squeaky-clean formative years with Britney on the Mickey Mouse Club.

And it works. I am convinced that she's as "Dirrty" as she says she is. And maybe even dirtier. I know she's got the piercing where it counts.

On the opening cut, "Can't Hold Us Down," she's joined by Lil' Kim in a girl-power anthem that takes a shot or two at Eminem but ultimately makes it all too clear that her notion of female empowerment is being free to sleep around as much as any boy and not be called a "whore." You go, girl. In fact, you can start with my friend Johnny. He'd enjoy the opportunity, I'm sure, to do his part for women's rights.

And then, of course, you've got the lead-off single, "Dirrty," an annoying party cut with Redman throwing elbows and Christina throwing innuendo to the wind with a grunt of "I need that, uh, to get me off/Sweatin' 'til my clothes come off." And if you're wondering what that looks like, then you haven't seen the booklet. Or the video. Or Rolling Stone.

Two different songs instruct her lover that he's got to "hit that spot" just right.

But "Stripped" works best when Aguilera -- or Xina, as she'd like you all to call her -- doesn't try so hard to prove how dirty, filthy, nasty she can be when rubbed the right way.

"Beautiful" starts as devastating, introspective balladry and somehow survives the transition from there into a soaring self-help anthem in a way that sounds perfectly honest; "Loving Me 4 Me" recalls the tender best of Minnie Ripperton; "Impossible" makes the most of a guest appearance by that other Grammy girl, Alicia Keys; "Make Over" proves she knows her Courtney Love, and "Walk Away" is classic -- that's right, classic -- soul, a heartbreaking ballad that gives the girl a chance to open up her other calling card, that giant voice of hers. If she's as lucky as she says she'd like to get, then "Walk Away" would be the single to emerge as her defining moment here. But sadly, "Dirrty" stands a better chance. And this time, she can't blame her handlers.

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