Sunday, December 25, 2005

Kat's Korner: Motion Sickness -- Tour Momento or Must Have?

[Note: This is the third of Kat's three commentaries this weekend. Friday Kat provided commentary on Carly Simon's No Secrets. Saturday, she provided commentary on James Blunt's Back to Bedlam.]

Our love is dead but without limit,
Like the surface of the moon
Or the land between here and the mountains.
It is not these hiding places
That have keep us innocent
But the way you taught me to just let it all go by.

Bright Eyes? Did you guess?

The song's "Make War" and the new album (import) is Motion Sickness: Live Recordings. It's been a busy year, maybe you missed out on Bright Eyes?

It's been a busy year for Conor Oberst. Two CDs released early in the year (Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning), touring, the Leno appearance everyone was talking about. Now comes the tour document, Motion Sickness.

Do you need the memento?

Actually, you do. I've always preferred Conor on stage to on disc.

Recorded, he's worth listening to, worth having in your collection. But, like Wilco, there's an added element in concert that doesn't always transfer to disc.

As a songwriter, Conor's strengths are rightly celebrated. But when he elecritifed so many on The Tonight Show performing "When A President Talks To God," it was that performing quality that stood out to me. Whether tweaking a moment with a bit of nervous energy or providing a stillness, there are little elements in his performances that bring so much to the songs. Motion Sickness captures that.

"When A President Talks To God" is on the album (with a rousing spoken introduction). But what may stand out for many is "Landlocked." The song appeared It's Morning, I'm Wide Awake and Conor's voice teamed with Emmylou Harris was something magical. Harris doesn't provide vocals on the live track. Which may lead you to pay more attention to the lyrics:

We made love on the living room floor
With the noise in the background of the televised war
And in the deafening pleasure
I thought I heard someone say,
If we walk away they'll walk away
But greed is a bottomless pit
And our freedom's a joke
We're just taking a piss
And the whole world must watch
The sad comic display
If you're still free start running away

Minus Harris, with just the ugly/pretty quality that is Conor's voice, see if you're not catching the meaning of the song. Vocally, Conor Oberst is the guy you look at and think, "Not that hot." Then you check again and think, "Maybe I'm wrong." There's a push-pull quality to his voice and at some times it's almost as though one of the two warring currents is going to strangle the other. That shows up on the studio recordings but it's usually not as obvious as when you catch him live.

On fifteen tracks, Motion Sickness flaunts that quality and that's the best reason to purchase the CD. Live, the tension between the desire to communicate and the weight of what's being communicated duke it out. Who's left standing?

Damned if I know. But it's raw and it's real. It serves his songs.

Take "True Blue" which is a very pretty song on the CD single "Thank You" but quite a bit more on the live album. From the "k" at the end of "doc" to the double time rhythm during the bridge, the song is quite a bit more live. These moments add up and enhance the songs.

That's not to put down the studio albums. They're good. Susan and C.I. both repeatedly suggested I review them earlier this year. They didn't speak to me. I listened to them, I enjoyed them, I was eager to see Bright Eyes in concert, but I really had nothing to say about them.

I wasn't sure what I'd have to say about the live album. Would they clean it up the way Sarah McLachlan's Mirrorball did? Reducing the audience, rendering it invisible except for a few small moments?

I generally prefer live albums. I used to prefer them to studio albums in almost every case. But somewhere along the way, it became acceptable to "tweak" the audience response, to re-record vocals and instruments yet still call the thing a live album. That's not new and you might be surprised how many live albums are "enhanced." But these days, it's as though they're all on "enhancement" additives (maybe the Senate could look into that). The result has been a lot of dead "live" albums.

Conor's been around for years. He has a sizeable following. But the Leno moment was a new high. Would the urge to smooth things over set in? Would, as is the case with so many dead "live" albums, the product trump the performance?

So I was leery.
Ty was noting this album and telling me I had to get it. He and Jess were playing it constantly.

I bought it with reservations. Hoping that something real would shine through. Like the moments on a Fleetwood Mac album when Stevie Nicks' vocals cut through the ornate production sheen.

My expectations were exceeded. For fifteen tracks, you're front and center, hearing Bright Eyes as you should. If you've caught a concert, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't but you've enjoyed the studio albums, Motion Sickness will take the journey to a whole new level. See if the lyrics don't reach you, note the new arrangements. Enjoy the sound of a band laying it down.

In a world of "beats" and silly & sickly love songs, a world where the pop scene's bad boys come off not as dangerous, but in sore need of a time out, Bright Eyes should stand out. Bright Eyes isn't afraid to comment on the world around -- not the inner world, not the outer world. This is music for adults.