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Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South (Merge) 

Conor Oberst is chasing a new muse—loose and vibey jam-session rock 'n' roll—and while he and his Mystic Valley Band find some success along the way, Outer South mostly plays against his strengths.

Released a short nine months after his last album, Outer South is unfocused and bloated; while a more concise effort would be able to hide a weak spot or two, the wastelands that spread across this 70-minute album are too much to ignore.

Oberst passes the microphone to his Mystic Valley cohorts on seven of Outer South's 16 songs, but he so powerfully outshines his bandmates that the other contributions only drag the album down. A better route would've been to strip out those seven songs for release as a bonus EP. While not entirely throwaways, the tracks are disruptive, bland and forgettable.

The album starts strongly, with "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)," a bright and organ-heavy rocker, and "To All the Lights in the Windows," a Springsteen-influenced tune that's a fresh direction for Oberst. But it's clear that Oberst is best in his country-folk troubadour mode, and his songwriting becomes weaker the further he gets from the slow and stripped-down realm.

The contrast is clear: "Roosevelt Room," which declares itself a "tear gas riot song," is dreadful, overloaded with cultural and political references; it's an absolute failure as a fist-pumper. However, on "Ten Women" and "White Shoes," the songs most like his work with Bright Eyes, Oberst retains the impact and drama of his best songwriting.

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