I wanted to like this album, I really, genuinely did. I've been a fan of pretty much everything I've ever heard from Conor Oberst since first hearing Desaparecidos in 2003 or so, and I adored 2008's self-titled solo album; hearing him perform tracks from it at Reading was one of my musical highlights of last year. I really wanted to like this; unfortunately, the best I can think of to say is that it sounds like compilation of Oberst and friends on an off-day.
Firstly, it's interesting to note the name this album has been put out under. While last year's record was put out simply as a self-titled Conor Oberst album, despite the presence of the Mystic Valley Band, here they get full credit in the band name. It's an obvious statement of intent, and signals what becomes immediately obvious from even a single listen: this is much more of a band effort than 2008's eponymous disk.
It would be very easy to join the wailing masses on forums, shrieking about how "CONOR DOESN'T EVEN SING ON HALF THE TRACKS ON HERE!!!!!" but that's petty, a cheap shot. The fact that Oberst's vocals aren't always present isn't neccessarily a bad thing in itself; the fact that three out of the other four vocalists' vocals (Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel's aside) aren't in anywhere near the same league as Oberst's, however, is. It's as if Conor has handed over the microphone to his bandmates, surrendering his own ego as he lets them take the spotlight, yet paid no attention to the quality of their voices. After all, they're his friends, right?
This is a record made by friends, make no mistake about it. The predominant feel of the record is that of friends relaxing, having fun and making music together - from the handclaps on Nik Freitas' 'Big Black Nothing' to the irritating call-and-response backing vocals which prevent 'Ten Women' from being the touching lament which it rightfully deserves to be.
The influence of others upon the songwriting - a process usually dominated by Oberst - causes the album to take on a sprawling feel. While much of it is as country as it comes, Taylor Hollingsworth's 'Air Mattress' sounds like Blink-182, had they grown up in Tennessee, and 'Nikorette' boasts a piano hook which is basically the same as that used by the Scissor Sisters on 'I Don't Feel Like Dancing'. The godawful 'Roosevelt Room' sees Oberst seemingly trying to reinvent himself along the lines of a politically acerbic AC/DC, all fuzzy guitar soloing and lyrics about "barefoot dudes down in New Orleans".
It would be unfair to dismiss Outer South as a completely charmless record. Boesel's 'Eagle on a Pole' is perhaps the album's stand-out track, providing a curiously different perspective to Conor Oberst's track of the same name. 'To All the Lights in the Windows', too, plays on Oberst's typically dense use of Biblical imagery, and 'White Shoes' is stripped-down and classic: just vocals and a creaking guitar. Tellingly, neither of the latter would sound out of place on a Bright Eyes album.
While Oberst's versatility and scope is often to be admired, here it ultimately falls flat. What could, handled differently, have built upon the successes of last year's solo record proves frustrating and incohesive; it's too long by far and just doesn't hang together as a collection of songs. Ironically enough, it's summed up in a lyric from 'Nikorette': "they steal your bright ideas and they make them dull". Sadly, it seems that Oberst and co. have done that themselves here.