Album Reviews

Bright Eyes – Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005

(Saddle Creek) UK release date: 16 October 2006

Rarities albums are, by their essential nature, a mixed bag which can befilled with anything from genuine lost gems to fillers that sank withouttrace the first time around for good reason, i.e. it was rubbish.

What makes or breaks such albums is the balance between the two extremes,combined with how desperate/ nerdy/ obsessive/ gullible its potential consumermight be. Good examples, such as Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies, canprovide an excellent addition to a seminal band’s oeuvre. Others, includingthose you’ll find nestling down beside the better-known works of Yo LaTengo or Mercury Rev, can augment a two-disc set and intosomething more than a collection of singles that anyone likely to buy itprobably has already.

At the other end of the scale, such compilations can be a pointlesscash-in by a record company faced with a contract-filling gap to plug. This rarities album from the folk-noir genius who once dared to diss John Peel falls, uncomfortably, somewhere in the middle.

As the second disc of a more extensive and complete retrospective, itwould work better than it does alone. Part of the problem is that faced witha performer as low-fi and minimal as Conor Oberst in the first place, manyof the unfinished demos presented here, such as I Will Be Grateful This Dayand Seashell Tale, sound much, much too thin. They are recordings thatshould never have escaped from the bootleggers.

Opening track Mirrors and Fevers squeals with the white noise feedback ofa dictaphone that’s accidentally switched itself on in the bottom of aninterviewer’s bag; Bad Blood sounds as if it’s been recorded on a primitivecassette player pushed against the speaker of a radio station that’s notquite tuned in.

Shaky demos such as Blue Angels Air Show are not necessarilya waste of iPod space, but at the same time there’s a certain conceitinvolved in assuming anyone else will be interested in them. This is moreacceptable in the case of The Beatles or Nirvana than it is ina young singer-songwriter who’s still mostly unknown by the mainstream.

Noise Floor does have its genuine gems: the morefully-formed Trees Get Wheeled Away is one, the unbearable fragility of AmyIn The White Coat and Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man are others. As awhole, the delicate-as-cobweb songs and fractured vocals help to define whatcan make Bright Eyes so good: the suggestion that a tap in the wrongdirection might cause him to break at any moment.

As a snapshot of his career since leaving Commander Venus in 1997 to pursue his previousside-project full time, it gives a reasonable overview of what he has tooffer, giving fans who were introduced to him with the 2005 double-releaseDigital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake Its Morning a chance to hearpre-breakthrough singles including 2003’s Drunk Kid Catholic and 2001’s I’veBeen Eating For You.

There’s plenty of material you won’t get elsewhere unless you’re an ebay obsessive or have been following hiscareer in minute detail since day one. If either of the above is the case, you’ll have all these tracksalready. If you’re not and you don’t, do you really need them? Of course you do, it’s Bright Eyes.

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More on Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
Bright Eyes – A Christmas Album
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Interview: Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London