Conor Oberst

Upside-Down Mountain

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Known for his prolific pen, Conor Oberst slowed down in the new millennium, enjoying his tours with the Monsters of Folk but generally staying away from albums of new songs; even Outer South, his last album with the Mystic Valley Band, was littered with contributions by his bandmates. This makes his 2014 album Upside-Down Mountain noteworthy -- it's his first collection of original material since 2008's eponymous effort for Merge, and it's also the first record since to be billed to him alone. Another, perhaps more important, first is that Upside-Down Mountain is his first record for a major label, appearing on the tony Warner imprint Nonesuch Records and feeling like it belongs. Working with producer Jonathan Wilson -- a fixture of L.A.'s neo-hippie scene, producing Father John Misty and Dawes -- Oberst retains the shaggy folk ramble of the Mystic Valley Band but cleans up his attack considerably, adding various sweeteners from strings and layered backing vocals to concentrated, crunching guitars, bright bursts of horns, and light tropical rhythms. Compared to the paisley-drenched, ragged records of the Mystic Valley Band, this is sun-drenched and slick; the MVB had its heart in Laurel Canyon of the late '60s, while Upside-Down Mountain rides on a SoCal breeze blowing in from the early '70s. It's a conscious step toward maturation, both in its studio sculpture -- Oberst has never spent so much time laboring over arrangements as he does here -- and compositional construction. Sonically, Upside-Down Mountain is more elaborate than the rest of his catalog, but elsewhere all his excesses are in check; his words are sanded down to essentials, his voice no longer strives for adenoidal heights. Oberst remains an eccentric -- he's not one for obvious hooks, or even insistent melodies -- but of all his albums, Upside-Down Mountain feels open-hearted, measured, and bright, the kind of record that opens up a new chapter in a career and possibly wins over new listeners.

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