Before the Dawn Heals Us
For M83, the band named after one of the heavens' picturesque spiral galaxies, the element of suprise is gone. In its place are equally fantastic and sky-high expectations.
The American debut of M83 (essentially now just Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez) was one of last year's pleasant surprises; Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts earned a cavalcade of critical kudos praising its vast cinematic tapestry, a soaring mix of electronica-inspired soundscapes and My Bloody Valentine-like guitar drones.
On Before the Dawn Heals Us, Gonzalez relies on the same template, for better or worse: layers and layers of keyboards and guitars. He alters the focus slightly by bringing more lyrics into the mix this time, though with varying degrees of success. Gonzalez' voice works quite well as a foil for the full-chorus backdrop of "Don't Save Us From the Flames," whereas the sentimental "Farewell/Goodbye" sounds like leftover Goldfrapp. Like a lot of primarily instrumental music, M83's sound runs the danger of becoming aural wallpaper, and at some point during either disc there dawns a moment when you may not remember which record you're currently spinning — followed by the realization that it really doesn't matter.
Track to burn: "Don't Save Us From the Flames"
Dimmer is the name of The Zincs' sophomore effort, and though it may accurately reflect chief Zinc Jim Elkington's darker side, it's in no way indicative of the sparkling songwriting found both here and on The Zincs' 2000 debut, Moth and Marriage.
The latter, released on the tiny independent label Ohio Gold, was a refreshingly warm and witty listen, somber-themed folk rock that somehow seemed to also carry a spring in its step. Elkington, a Chicago-based British ex-pat, sounded like a mix of (Smog)'s Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen fronting an acoustic-based Pinback. For Dimmer, Elkington added a few more electronic elements and recorded with a full band (he played everything on the debut), but the formula remains the same. Elkington's wry wit is intact here — "Life is long/What doesn't kill me only makes my life longer" — and many songs also seem to leap eagerly from the speakers (particularly "Moment Is Now!" and "Beautiful Lawyers"). There may be cuts more understated than anything on Moth... ("Passengers," "Sunday Night"), but they act as well-placed foils rather than intrusive mood breakers.
In the end, Elkington's songwriting seems adaptable to many tempos or styles; perhaps we shouldn't expect less of an ex-patriot.
Track to burn: "Beautiful Lawyers"
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/Digital Ashes in a Digital Urn
If you've bought a magazine over the last couple of months — any magazine, it doesn't really matter which one — then you've probably heard about Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes, the vehicle for his folk-influenced, proudly emotive tales of love and loss. As Oberst is 24, most every one of these stories deal with his age. And due to his age, he's often called all sorts of silly things, like the Best New Songwriter in America and The New Bob Dylan.
But who's surprised? America has become a country of What's Next: see your LeBron Jameses, your Jonathan Safran Foers, your American Idols. Why? People like a mystery, and people doubly like to be in on the ground floor of perceived future success. Can LeBron break all of Air Jordan's records? Is Safran Foer a Philip Roth in the making? Ultimately, it doesn't really matter all that much.
Like prophecies, those predictions that come true are always the only ones remembered. I'm Wade Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn don't suggest Dylan — only 40 years of sustained, wide-blooming greatness could — but they do give us the clearest look yet at the Oberst oeuvre.
On these two records, Oberst subscribes to the W.C. Williams maxim of "no ideas but in things," and is confident enough in his writing to pull it off. His voice trembling, whispering, and screaming in equal measure, Wide Awake is, despite a few epic flourishes ("Land Locked Blues," "Road to Joy"), the most measured, assured Oberst we've yet heard (Urn is likewise likeable, but lacks the organic symbiosis of voice with acoustic instrumentation that has marked his best work).
One recent story I read on Oberst mentioned he was a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fan, which I don't doubt. Like the great author, Oberst's creations are decidedly populist, his back pages tied together with lyrical ribbons of magical realism (see "Land Locked Blues," which literally veers from love to war in the flash of a camera shutter).
And ultimately, Oberst's best songs live in that haunted overlap of past and future, like all good art. The present, in more ways than one.
Tracks to burn: "Lua"/"Ship in a Bottle"
Rating: 1/2 / 1/2
-Timothy C. Davis