Bright Eyes

Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005)

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Released toward the end of 2006, a year that was unusually quiet for the unusually prolific Conor Oberst, Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005) gathers up 16 odds and ends Bright Eyes has released in the past seven years. Those seven years saw Oberst rise from indie wunderkind to indie superstar, but Noise Floor doesn't trace that rise, nor does it offer a complete chronicle of rarities from that time. It's a collection of stray songs -- things released as singles or B-sides, things that have never appeared before -- and it feels that way, lacking the overall thematic purpose of either of his 2005 albums, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning or Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Those albums were ultimately genre exercises -- a country-rock record paired with a Postal Service indie pop record -- but this captures a less self-conscious Oberst, which is often a better Oberst. Not that this will change any doubters' minds -- his voice and lyrics remain acquired tastes, especially when paired to winding folk tunes -- but this actually showcases a greater musical and emotional range than I'm Wide Awake, even if it still can succumb to solipsism a little too often. The ballads remain a little turgid, but his cover of Spoon's "Spent on Rainy Days" has real venom and momentum, "Happy Birthday to Me" rambles by on a genuine weariness, his take on Jimmy LaValle's "Bad Blood" is Oberst at his classic lo-fi pop peak, and -- best of all -- the instrumental version of Matt Ward's "Seashell Tale" has a lightness of touch rarely found in his work. Such small but worthwhile revelations are often tucked away on rarities collections like this, and it's nice that Noise Floor emphasizes this side of Oberst, illustrating that when he's not trying too hard he's not half bad.

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