Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain (Rating 4 out of 5)

conorSomewhere along the line Conor Oberst, the artist formerly known as Bright Eyes, seems to have found himself. From “Time Forgot” the opening salvo on Upside Down Mountain, his first set of new material in 8 years, one sees a more focused, more mature artist with an ear for production value that seems to have been missing over the last couple releases including the somewhat ramshackle effort, Outer South, his last effort with the Mystic Valley Band.

Working with producer Jonathan Wilson, the neo-hippie psychedelic popster who has made a name for himself twirling the knobs for Father John Misty and Dawes, as well as crafting Fanfare, his own Psych-Pop effort in 2013, the laid back Greenwich Village vibe is front and center with most of the songs on the album residing towards the sunny side of the street.

No your ears are not playing tricks on you, that is indeed Swedish sister act First Aid Kit you are hearing flowered across 6 tracks on the record, most beautifully displayed on “Hundreds of Ways” where the backing vocal harmonies seem to float from the skies on this uplifting track where Oberst’s signature intricate wordplay is layered into a horn-driven almost tropical mariachi style salad.

The 70’s Laurel Canyon esthetic is front and center for sure, but there clearly is something else going on here as well.  The selective use of the Pedal Steel provides a touch of atmospheric Western Noir on “Night at Lake Unknown,” a tune that goes from good to great with the welcoming presence of First Aid Kit, and the intricate structuring of the B-3, horns, and Mellotron on “Governors Ball”  are sterling examples of the time and care that went into producing this album.  There is a lot going on here, but the puzzle pieces seem to fit perfectly.

There is enough off-center, introverted quirkiness here to keep old school Bright Eyes fans satisfied, and new ears should be joining the party courtesy of the first-rate fairy dust production of Jonathan Wilson.

In any case, this is a pretty darn good place holder to hold us over until we can get Wilson to produce a new Monsters of Folk collaboration with Oberst, M. Ward, Jim James, and Mike Mogis.