Ruminations by Conor Oberst
In the autumn of 2015, following a brief period spent in hospital due to laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion, Conor Oberst, the frontman of Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos, suffered a health scare after discovering he had a cyst in his brain. Thankfully, it transpired that the cyst had likely been there for most of the singer’s life and, for the time being, presented no ramifications for his health. Nonetheless, the stress that came with Oberst’s stint of health complications led the musician to cancel his tour dates with Desaparecidos and, now taking various medications including anti-depressants, the musician secluded himself within his home in Omaha, Nebraska and, without intending to, composed an entire record’s worth of songs. Not wanting to let his abrupt creative streak go to waste, Oberst recorded these 10 songs within a 48-hour timeframe at his home early in 2016, the resulting album being released later that year under the name Ruminations. Now, just over five years since its initial inception, the introspective highlight of the singer’s career is receiving an expanded and remastered reissue for Record Store Day 2021, and a very deserved one at that.
Stripped of the more complex arrangements found on a Bright Eyes album or one of his earlier solo outings, Ruminations – with its use of only piano or guitar to accompany Oberst’s singing and harmonica playing – sells itself solely on the strength of the singer’s songcraft, whilst also affording the album’s particularly candid and sombre lyrics a fittingly sparse framework that lends itself to this kind of intimate introspection. As such, in accordance with the record’s more minimal nature, the appeal of Ruminations stands firmly just on the strength of Oberst’s keen ear for melody, the detail and depth with which he presents his inward-looking musings, and the palpable earnestness and vulnerability of his performances. This being said, the album’s opener, Tachycardia, is as apt a mission statement for Ruminations as any song could be. The soft sway of the piano part, as it flits from chord to chord, makes for a beautiful pairing with the soft quavering of Oberst’s voice, itself a fitting complement to the morbid melancholy of the lyrics, which wrap the musician’s recounting of recent personal problems within the overarching imagery of failing physical health, in a way that conveys the stress and fear caused by these issues with an almost frightening urgency. Other highlights include Barbary Coast (Later), whose lonely guitar and harmonica are a natural pairing to the lyrics, which see Oberst expressing feelings of detachment from the world around him, whilst Counting Sheep, true to the song’s title and themes surrounding the physical exhaustion and mental fatigue brought on by illness, strengthens the presentation of these ideas with a lulling waltz of descending, gently-picked guitar chords. Indeed, whilst Oberst’s already-proven aptitude for songcraft is no more present on this album than it is any of his other great works, the reason Ruminations remains a highlight of the singer’s entire catalogue of work is because of how his songwriting skills are repurposed to more potently portray the shift in his mental state following his health scare to a more self-examining and morbidly bleak disposition. The results are immediately impactful due to Oberst’s unabashed sincerity, but there’s more than enough detail to his ruminations for this record to have remained an emotive highpoint of the musician’s career nearly five years since its initial release, and I look forward to spending more time with it when I get my hands on its revamped Record Store Day release.
Anomic by Jah Wobble and Marconi Union
By far the most pleasant surprise for me on this year’s list of Record Store Day releases is the 2013 collaboration between the original bassist for Public Image Ltd., Jah Wobble, and ambient trio Marconi Uni, Anomic. Ambient music is a genre for which I have a particularly strong predilection, such that I’ve spent a lot of time trawling the internet for obscure ambient music, perhaps more so than any other genre. Anomic is one such record I discovered during one of my ambient binges last year and it won me over instantly, now standing as exemplary of the ambient dub subgenre to me. Prior to discovering Anomic, Jah Wobble’s post-PiL material was unknown to me, despite the fact that he has enjoyed an incredibly prolific solo career since choosing to walk his own path in 1980. Although initially continuing to indulge in his post-punk inclinations, Wobble has explored an impressive amount of stylistic trappings over the last four decades; his most recent release, this year’s Guanyin (also available this RSD), being an exploration of traditional Chinese music from the perspective of a musician whose signature style of bass playing spawned out of a keen interest in dub music.
Indeed, regardless of what genre of music Wobble decides to work with, the central discipline that informs his experiments is dub, and that remains the case when working in the realm of ambient on Anomic. Across the album, Wobble’s staple, dub-influenced bass playing remains the central focus of each piece of music, with its tone striking such a perfect balance of smoothness and full-bodied roundness that it feels entirely at home on an ambient album. Meanwhile, the way in which Marconi Union frame their atmospheric embellishments around the bass is beautifully executed and conceals a lot of carefully-considered detail, despite the simple nature of many of Wobble’s bass melodies. The repeating, two-note bass pattern on Times of Despair is elevated to gorgeous highs thanks to some heavenly harmonic texturing, whilst Terminus indulges in the rhythmic quality provided by Wobble’s bass line and incorporates light percussion and some more melodically-inclined guitar and synth parts to strike a mood that captures the appeal of downtempo without overshadowing its dub undertones. Indeed, Marconi Union’s style of ambient music is moulded incredibly well to the firm foundation provided by Wobble’s bass, making Anomic a favourite find of mine within the ambient dub genre, and a surprising but greatly welcomed inclusion for Record Store Day 2021.
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