Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2019-01-24
Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center

If you’ve been sitting around wondering if Phoebe Bridgers' next solo album was somehow going to be able to top her out of nowhere 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, you’re going to have to wait a while longer.  On the heels of her participation on the boygenius EP and tour with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, here comes another collaboration.  This time it’s a full-length album paired up with indie legend Conor Oberst, who sang a track on Bridgers' debut.  Her powerfully understated vocals blend seamlessly with those of Oberst's creaky ones, that in their imperfection have always created their own hooks.  To up the challenge quotient a bit higher, the tracks that appear on the self-titled, and surprise-released, Better Oblivion Community Center also stick to a loose theme of time confined to the same named psychiatric treatment center.  In lesser hands, this could have been a daunting task, but Bridgers and Oberst adroitly step through it both slyly and sympathetically.

The album is pillared by three radio ready and sturdy songs that the quieter denizens of the BOCC wander between.  The opening and cleverly titled ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’ that speaks to both being unprepared and undiagnosed starts with a simple strum and Bridgers’ always emotive voice.  But with Oberst in the choruses and sharply observed lyrical snippets like the television screenshot of a “bloody bath of sarin gas”, the song pulls hard in the curves and continues to pick up steam.  The image of being straight-jacketed and unable to stop the unstoppable brings a palpable sense of helplessness to a devastatingly simple song.

The mid-tempo power folk of ‘Dylan Thomas’ with its reference to the poet seizing on a barroom floor is instantly infectious.  Here Bridgers gives a nod and a wink to her own iconography quipping that the “ghost is just a kid in a sheet.”  The loopy guitar and bass lines of ‘My City’ also make for a go down easy melodic moment.  “Looking out on the river bend” and other parts of their town from the safety of the BOCC has Bridgers and Oberst tied up in knots.  The blend of their dissimilar voices is compelling throughout the album, but here they harmonize the tightest in the chorus as the illusion of “freedom just freaks me out.”

Of the quieter songs, Oberst’s lead on ‘Forest Lawn’ with Bridgers a step behind is a low key masterpiece.  The song draws on the melody of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ where the subject and Cathy revel in their freedom wondering if the man in the gabardine suit is a spy.  Here Oberst and Bridgers imagine that the BOCC orderlies are both dangerous and famous in more confined quarters.  The clink of what sounds like kitchen utensils at the end adds to the song's insular charm.  Similarly, Bridgers takes the lead on the smoked-out cottony filaments that wrap around ‘Chesapeake’.  The song echoes most closely to Stranger in the Alps’ ‘Smoke Signals’, with its wispy theremin in lieu of strings, but retaining a powerful sadness.  Like ‘Smoke Signals’ though a few other band name checks are thrown in.  If the line “I can’t hardly wait for someone to replace” isn’t a reference to one of Paul Westerberg’s most openly paralyzing moments it feels more than coincidence if explored.  The ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ tip of the hat is more open, but Bridgers somehow makes it seem mournful as well.

BOCC even has a few more experimental moments more in line with some of Oberst’s open palette.  ‘Exception To The Rule’ is backed by drum machine and synths as the duo sing in tandem, and ‘Big Black Heart’ pulses in sync with its title.  The closing ‘Dominos’, being the album’s only cover (by Oberst cohort Taylor Hollingsworth), contains a line that encapsulates the album well.  “They take me to a place in the city, and when we’re done they take me home”, reminds me of the late 80s comedy The Dream Team.  The characters in the movie are taken on an ill-advised outing from their psych ward, but ultimately just want to be back where they feel safe.  At a place no doubt like the Better Oblivion Community Center, where you check in to check out.  And if Bridgers and Oberst are the post-dinner, post-sedation entertainment it seems a good place to be confined.

       

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